Americans may think of Cinco de Mayo as the Mexican version of July 4th or St. Paddy’s Day–it has similar patriotic overtones and party-hearty connotations. In fact, it’s got a far more complicated history than most of us take in, especially after a couple of the margaritas or cervezas often poured liberally to mark the day.
First of all, you may be surprised to learn that Cinco de Mayo is more a Mexican-American festival than a true Mexican one. Second, did you know about its connection to the American Civil War? On the fifth of May, 1862, in the town of Puebla de Los Angeles, the Mexican Army held off French troops bent on conquering Mexico City and setting up a state friendly to the Confederacy. The much smaller Mexican army’s unlikely win was seen as a blow for democracy and its fight with France (to which it was deeply in debt) as a parallel struggle to the simultaneous struggles going on in the (not so) United States.
Although we probably could have just provided you with a killer margarita recipe and a perfect homemade guacamole—you definitely can’t go wrong with either of those—we’ve pulled out all the stops and brought you carnitas tacos with slow-simmered pork and all the fixings, a sweet and crunchy salad, and foolproof meringues that conjure up the flavors of Mexican chocolate.
Carnitas (Chile braised pork shoulder)
This is the perfect make ahead dish for that Cinco de Mayo party you might be hosting this weekend. You can prepare the carnitas a day or two before and reheat in a 350 degree oven. Serve with warm corn tortillas, tomatillo salsa and your favorite fixings.
1 4-5 lb boneless pork shoulder
4 dried ancho chiles, stemmed & seeded
2 dried chiles de arbol, stemmed & seeded (guajillo or japones chiles would also work well)
2 tbs sugar
2 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp canola oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 bay leaves
2 tsp oregano
2 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp nutmeg
1 12 oz bottle of dark Mexican beer (we use Negro Modelo)
Place chiles in a bowl and add boiling water to cover. Let soak until softened, about 20 minutes. Drain, reserving about 1 cup of soaking liquid.
Puree chiles, sugar, lime juice and ⅓ cup reserved liquid in a blender or food processor until it becomes a smooth paste, adding more of the soaking liquid if necessary. Season the pork shoulder generously with salt and spread the paste all over the pork. Cover and chill for at least 2 hours and up to 2 days. We like to leave it overnight if we have the time.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bring pork to room temperature. Heat oil in a heavy pot or dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, bay leaves and spices. Cook until onion is softened, stirring often for about 5 minutes. Add beer and bring to a boil. Add pork shoulder to pot, cover and transfer to oven.
Braise pork until tender, about 3 hours. Shred the pork with 2 forks and combine with the sauce in the pot. Adjust for salt if necessary.
Serve with warm corn tortillas, radishes, queso fresco, pickled onions and tomatillo salsa.
Pickled Red Onions
2 red onions, sliced thin
1 tsp salt
½ cup white vinegar
Juice of 1 lime
Toss the onions, salt, vinegar and lime juice in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.
1 lb tomatillos, husked, washed and coarsely chopped
1 jalapeno, seeded and sliced
1 garlic clove
About 10 cilantro sprigs, stems removed
1 tsp salt
Put all the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth, be careful not to overblend.
Mexican Chocolate Meringues
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan
Zanthe didn’t discover Mexican chocolate until she lived in Southern California, where the bright hexagonal boxes of Ibarra chocolate caught her attention. Melted into hot, frothed milk, it makes a sublime hot chocolate. These meringues recall those flavors, with a hint of cinnamon to complement their ethereal almond crunch and deep cocoa flavor. The almond meal serves to stabilize them, making these meringues more foolproof than others. No need to bake for hours or worry about the humidity: these have turned out perfectly every time we’ve made them.
1 cup confectioners’ sugar, plus extra for dusting
⅓ cup finely ground blanched almonds (or almond meal)
¼ cup best-quality unsweetened cocoa powder
¾ tsp cinnamon
4 large egg whites, at room temperature
Pinch of salt
½ cup sugar
½ tsp vanilla extract
⅓ cup finely chopped bittersweet chocolate or chopped dark chocolate chips
Set oven racks at top and bottom thirds of oven and preheat to 300℉. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, sift together confectioners’ sugar, almonds, cinnamon and cocoa powder.
In an electric mixer fitted with a whisk, beat egg whites and salt at medium speed until opaque, then raise speed to medium high and beat until frothy. Add granulated sugar one tablespoon at a time until eggs are shiny and hold stiff peaks. Beat in vanilla extract.
With a spatula and a light touch, quickly and thoroughly fold dry ingredients into egg whites, followed by chopped chocolate.
Drop mixture by tablespoons onto parchment, leaving an inch or two between meringues and gently swirling tops. Dust lightly with confectioners sugar. Bake at 300℉ for ten minutes, then lower temperature to 200℉ and bake for one hour more. Let cool completely on sheets and store in a cool, dry place (never in the fridge).
Makes approximately 24 meringues
Sweet Spiced Pepitas
1 large egg white
2 cups shelled raw pumpkin seeds (the green ones, unsalted)
⅓ cup sugar
1 tbsp chili powder
1 tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp cumin
½ tsp salt
¼-½ tsp cayenne, to taste
Preheat oven to 350. Line a baking sheet with parchment. In large bowl, beat egg white until frothy. Mix in pepitas and other ingredients, then spread on baking sheet in one layer. Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden brown, stirring every five minutes. Cool on sheet and then use parchment to break up seeds. Store in airtight container.
We first ate a version of this salad years ago at our good friend Gina’s house, and we’ve remembered it ever since! You can make this salad with any tender greens you like, though romaine adds a crunch and freshness that reminds us of that other classic invented in Mexico: the Caesar. Feel free to swap out the goat cheese for some cubed Manchebo if you prefer, but don’t skip the hearts of palm or the pepitas, and use the best-quality sherry vinegar you can lay your hands on–it will make all the difference.
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed and peeled if thick
2 heads Romaine lettuce, washed and sliced
5 hearts of palm, sliced crosswise into slices
½ pint grape or cherry tomatoes, washed and halved
1 avocado, peeled and cubed
Best-quality sherry vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
3 oz goat cheese, crumbled
¾ cup spiced pepitas (or pepitas lightly toasted in a dry skillet until golden)
In a pot of boiling, well-salted water, blanch asparagus spears. Drain, and when cool enough to handle, slice at an angle into 2-inch pieces.
Carefully toss together all the vegetables in a large bowl, then dress to taste with oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Crumble goat cheese and sprinkle pepitas on top.