You probably saw on instagram that I kind of went to town on Cinco de Mayo this year. Not being Mexican or living in the US, Cinco de Mayo itself doesn’t have any meaning for me. But, when faced with many more weeks, if not months, of working from home, with all future trips cancelled for now, spending a day enjoying all manner of Mexican food and drinks seemed like a fun thing to do and a much needed distraction from this whole lockdown malarky.
When I mentioned this idea to Kaja (my partner in crime from Two Kitchens Brussels), she suggested we turn this into a challenge for the two of us. We both agreed we would try to have something Mexican for each meal that day (with some allowance for the fact it was a normal Tuesday and I have a regular office job) but would not tell each other in advance what we were planning on making. And it was really fun to discover on the day itself what Kaja ended up preparing (and if you haven’t checked this out yet, you should, it all sounded really good and a bit unusual).
With a tiny bit of prep work 1-2 days before Cinco de Mayo, I easily managed to fit the various recipes around my day job. On the day itself, I eased myself into Cinco de Mayo by remaking the Toasted Cinnamon Brown Rice Horchata I shared on the blog a couple of years ago. It’s still my favourite way to make Horchata – the toasted cinnamon adds some delicate smokey tones and the dates provide this mellow sweetness which I really like. As delicious as it is on its own, the warmer temperatures we have been having meant I started the day with an iced coffee with horchata. I had planned to have a go at making a Pan de Muerto for breakfast, alas time was not on my side.
Things became really fun at lunchtime though when I finally got to try a simple yet intriguing recipe that I first heard about when Tejal Rao from the NY Times wrote about it. So I made a batch of Quesadillas con Flor de Jamaica (aka hibiscus quesadillas). I love hibiscus agua fresca and often make large batches of it in the summer to keep in the fridge.
But what I didn’t know until I read Tejal’s piece is that the hibiscus left over from making agua fresca can also be used as a filling for quesadillas. At its most basic, you simply fry the rehydrated hibiscus with onion and garlic in some olive oil and season with salt and then use this as your filling for the quesadilla.
If you fancy having a go at this yourself, for 4 medium-sized quesadillas for 2 people, I started with 30g of dried hibiscus over which I poured 1L of boiling water. After 10 minutes I strained everything through a mesh sieve and used the hibiscus tea to make agua fresca (simply pour over ice with a squeeze of lime, if you want it sweeter you can add some simple syrup to your glass). The left over hibiscus I then fried in some olive oil with a chopped onion for around 5 minutes and seasoned with salt and pepper. I then divided the onion and hibiscus mixture between four medium sized tortillas, added around 30g of grated cheese to each tortilla and cooked the quesadillas in a frying pan on medium until the cheese started melting and the tortillas were becoming crips and starting to colour.
For dinner, we shared a big plate of what is more commonly a breakfast or brunch dish in Mexico, Chilaquiles Verdes con Pollo plus a haphazard collection of side dishes, including Elote (i.e. grilled corn on the cob slathered in mayonnaise and then covered with Feta, a stand-in for Mexican cotija, plus chili powder and coriander), some guacamole, sourcream, pickled red onions, a small bowl of pico de gallo and some more corn chips.
Chilaquiles are corn tortillas that are lightly fried before being smothered in salsa and cooked until the tortillas start softening. In this case, the Chilaquiles were made with a green salsa (tomatillos in theory, but we made do with green tomatoes), topped with grilled chicken, red onion, cheese and jalapenos. Fairly quick to put together and super flavourful. Definitely a dish I will make again and again. And all of this was washed down with plenty of beer as well as homemade Tepache.
If you haven’t yet heard of Tepache, it is a fermented pineapple drink that is quite common in Mexico. It is super easy to make and is a really fun (and delicious!) way to use pineapple peels instead of just throwing them in the bin right away. The key is to have a nicely ripe pineapple – this will infinitely improve the flavour of your Tepache.
To make 2L of Tepache you will need:
2L of water
100g brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick
Peel and core of 1 ripe pineapple
Place all ingredients in a glass bowl, cover with a muslin or other breathable fabric and set aside somewhere warm for 24-48 hours or until the mixture is starting to become fizzy. Remove any white foam from the surface of the liquid and strain through a fine mesh sieve, pressing hard against the pineapple peel and core to extract all the juice. Store in the fridge in sealed bottles.
Enjoy as is or mixed half and half with sparkling water. And, as a friend from Mexico explained – Tepache is infinitely improved by a squeeze of lime and a pinch of chili powder (and he is right). It is amazing just how much flavour you can get out of pineapple peels – you can get 2 litres of a tasty beverage out of something you would otherwise just throw away.
Last but not least, we ended the dinner with Tres Leches, a dessert that is loved all over South America and that is adored all over Mexico as well. It is basically a spongecake that is soaked in three different types of milk, evaporated milk, condensed milk and plain milk (hence the Spanish name “tres leches”), before being finished with a layer of whipped cream. Of course, many variations exist, with some adding some booze to the three milks or a layer of dulce de leche below the whipped cream topping, or replacing one of the milks with coconut milk for a more tropical flavour. This time I actually kept it even simpler than the basic dish and opted to use a sleeve of ladyfingers left over from this Tiramisu as a stand-in for a freshly baked sponge cake. And you know what? It totally worked. So this crowdpleaser of a dessert became even easier to assemble!
If you want to read a bit more about Mexican cuisine and try your hands at some recipes, I really like Mexico – The Cookbook from Phaidon. I have also heard good things about Nopalito, even if less comprehensive. And Tacos, by Alex Stupak, even if a bit single subject. And then there are the various books on Mexican cooking that Diana Kennedy wrote, including The Essential Cuisines of Mexico.
Just a quick note on resources. As delicious as Mexican food is, some dishes require ingredients that are not commonly found in Western European supermarkets – e.g. corn tortillas or nixtamilized masa harina for making your own corn tortillas, tomatillos (whether fresh or canned), black beans, mole, hibiscus, pozole, epazote etc. Thankfully, it is pretty easy to find most ingredients online (e.g. on Souschef.co.uk). Failing that, in Brussels there is the Pueblo Latino shop in St Gilles which is a good address for ingredients not just for Mexican cooking but also Peruvian cooking and other Latin American cuisines. And I hear Raices Latinas in Schaerbeek is an equally good spot for finding ingredients for Mexican and Latin American food.