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On Cooking Southern: Cinco de Mayo Time for Mexican Feast

cinco-de-mayofeast-DSCN0592

SOUTHERNISM OF THE WEEK

Happy as a pig in mud: The way some of us parents are feeling this week in anticipation of our offspring walking across the graduation stage.

Happy Cinco de Mayo, amigos. Let’s party!

May 5 is the date when Mexicans commemorate their 1862 Puebla battle victory over the invading French army. Led by Los Angelenos in the 1860s, we Americans jumped on Cinco de Mayo as a celebration of freedom. The date has become more popular north of the border than in Mexico. It is perhaps one more national excuse to hold an annual party featuring Mexican food and beverages.

Most folks around here have grown up with a taste for all those Mexican flavors. Over the years, we have expanded our Mexican food repertoire from the basic margaritas and beef tacos. Our dishes now include and our local stores now stock exotic Mexican ingredients such as jicama and tomatillos.

Several of this week’s recipes include these lovely ingredients.

The tomatillo is known as the Mexican Husk Tomato. The fruit is a member of the nightshade family and in the same species as regular tomatoes, and are a staple of the original cuisine of their native land. The husk is an inedible paper-like covering that turns brown and splits open as the fruit matures; the skin of the fruit underneath the husk is slightly sticky.

Tomatillos are the key ingredient in always-popular Mexican and Central American sauces. They should be firm and bright-colored when ripe — ranging in color according to variety from the familiar bright green and creamy yellow, to red and even purple. Although they taste terrific when fried, never confuse a tomatillo with a green tomato.

Jicama (pronounced hee-ka-ma) is commonly known as Mexican yam or Mexican turnip. In fact, placed side by side with one variety of North American rutabaga, the jicama could pass for its cousin. It is a member of the potato family and the name refers to the Mexican vine, whose tuberous root is reminiscent of a cross between a potato and a pear. It is loaded with fiber, and with vitamins A, B and C.

The root is the only edible part of the plant; the leaves and seeds (in pods like lima beans) are highly toxic. The Spanish conquistadors spread jicama to the Philippines, and from there, the crop spread throughout China and Southeast Asia.
The flavor of fresh jicama is sweet, starchy and crunchy, somewhat like apples or raw green beans. It pairs well with the juice of orange, lemon or lime, chili powder, cilantro, ginger, onion and soy sauce.


HOMEMADE TOMATILLO SALSA VERDE

salsa-cornsalad-jicamaslaw-DSCN05982-3 c diced tomatillos

1/2 c chopped white onion

1/2 c packed fresh cilantro leaves or parsley

4-oz can of diced green chilies

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 tsp kosher salt

1/2 tsp white granulated sugar or Splenda

Combine all ingredients and blend until smooth.


HOMEMADE CRÈME FRAICHE

cremefraiche-DSCN06303 c heavy whipping cream

6 T whole buttermilk

Place cream in a quart-size clean canning jar. Add the buttermilk and seal. (It will fill the jar to the top without spillage when sealed.) Shake well, and place on counter away from the light, covered, for 24 hours. Refrigerate after 24 hours. Use it just like sour cream.


JICAMA SLAW
This makes a slightly sweet but crunchy slaw. It provides a nice break from the heat of spicy Mexican dishes. But feel free to doctor it with peppers or spices.

jicama-cabbageslaw-DSCN06342 c cabbage chiffonades (or an entire cabbage)

1 c grated jicama (or half of a regular-size jicama)

2 c crème fraiche or Mexican sour cream

Juice of a tangelo or Clementine orange

Spritz of lime juice

1 to 2 T organic Agave nectar

Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Refrigerate until ready to use.


CHICKEN TACO CASSEROLE WITH CORN AND MANGO ENSALADA

salsa_verdechickentacocasserole-DSCN06181 tsp salted butter (or a leftover butter wrapper)

12 (6-inch) corn tortillas

2 T corn or extra light olive oil, heated

Kosher salt

1 large white onion, chopped fine

2 c crème frâiche or 15-oz jar of Mexican sour cream

12-oz tomatillo salsa verde (jarred version works great)

Salt and pepper to taste

6 c cooked, cubed chicken (equivalent of a 48-oz pkg of frozen breasts)

12 oz Monterrey Jack cheese, grated (not packaged)

Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Preheat oven to 350˚F. Heat corn oil in a skillet set on medium-high heat. Dip tortillas in hot oil just long enough to soften. Drain and cool on paper towels on a rack over a baking pan. Sprinkle kosher salt over the hot tortillas. Once dry, tear them into quarters and set aside.

Add the chopped onion to the hot corn oil; sauté on medium heat until transparent. Stir in the crème frâiche and simmer on low heat for 5 minutes. Add the salsa verde, salt and pepper, stirring at regular intervals to blend completely, about 5 minutes. Turn off heat.

Spread a small amount of the sauce evenly across the bottom of the dish. Layer with torn tortillas, chicken, sauce and cheese, repeating once. Bake uncovered about 45 minutes. Serve immediately.

VARIATION: Substitute taco sauce for tomatillo salsa verde, and add a 4-ounce can of diced green chilies.


CORN AND MANGO SALSA ENSALADA

corn&mango-ensalada-DSCN06465 ears corn, blanched and cut off cob

2 mangos, peeled and cut into cubes

20 cherry tomatoes, halved

1/4 c chopped green onion

1 T diced jalapeño pepper, deseeded

Juice of 2 limes with pulp

2 tsp salt

1/4 tsp ground black pepper

Mixed Spring greens, rinsed and dried

Wedges of avocado, OPTIONAL

Wedge of lime

Combine first 8 ingredients in a large bowl. Allow to sit about 15 minutes or refrigerate until ready to use. Ladle a generous amount over a mound of Spring greens with optional avocado and a wedge of lime, or use as a condiment on carne asada.


CARNE ASADA WITH QUICK SALSA
For speed and ease, I’ve used cut-up fajita beef rather than a whole skirt or flank steak. However, quick-grilled steak is much better if time and locale permit. This recipe also calls for a quick version of salsa made mostly from canned goods. Feel free to substitute fresh tomatoes and chilies.

carneasada-DSCN061114-oz can of diced tomatoes

4-oz can diced green chilies

1 bunch green onions, chopped

3 T extra light olive oil

2 T white distilled vinegar

1 T dried leaf oregano

2 sprigs cilantro leaves, minced (I prefer only a hint of cilantro)

1 T minced jalapeño

1 tsp ground oregano

1 tsp cumin

1/2 tsp coriander

1/2 tsp chili powder

4 cloves garlic, minced

Juice of 2 limes, 2 small oranges and 1 lemon

2 lb fajita beef strips or 2 lb flank steak

8 (6-inch) corn tortillas, warmed (or large flour tortillas,

Crème fraiche or Mexican sour cream

Grated queso fresco cheese

Place the tomatoes in a large bowl. Add the green chilies, green onions, oil, vinegar, leaf oregano, jalapeño and cilantro. Toss to mix well. Chill salsa 2-4 hours.

Combine the ground oregano, coriander, garlic, and citrus juice in a small bowl. Whisk to blend. Rub into both sides of flank steak and allow the beef to marinate in the seasoning for 10-30 minutes. NOTE: The citrus will break down the meat, so do not leave it soaking for too long. Place steak on grill on hot coals and grill 7 minutes on first side, and 3-7 minutes on second side, until done to taste. Medium pink doneness is best… do not overcook!

Remove meat to a cutting board to set up for 5 minutes. Slice across the grain into half-inch strips.

Heat tortillas just before meat is finished by wrapping in dampened paper towels and heat in microwave about 15 seconds, or by placing in top of double boiler with boiling water not touching the insert. Cover and steam for about 5 minutes.

Position 2-3 strips of steak in center of each tortilla. Top with tablespoon of salsa and a dollop of sour cream or sprinkle of queso fresco. Feel free to embellish with corn and mango ensalada and salsa verde. Eat flat or roll each tortilla. Serves 4.


STRAWBERRY PLOP SANGRÍA

To fill one of those fun, decorative summer beverage dispensers, double the recipe below.

strawberrysangria-DSCN06091 qt strawberries plus extras for garnish

1 c white granulated sugar

2 bottles of chilled rosé wine

1 peeled, seedless orange, sliced

1 unpeeled lemon or Meyer lemon, sliced and seeded

1 liter (33.8 oz) bottle of club soda

Ice cubes

Slices of orange for garnish

Fresh mint leaves for garnish

Reserve enough smaller berries to use as garnish in each glass. Rinse and remove caps from remaining strawberries but do not slice. Place in large bowl and add sugar. Cover and refrigerate to marinate overnight.

Pour sugared berries into a large glass pitcher or beverage dispenser. Top with the chilled rosé wine, and add first set of citrus slices. Add club soda. Stir. Place 1 perfect strawberry in each glass. Add ice and fill with sangría. Garnish with sprig of mint and a slice of orange.


Laurie Triplette is a writer, historian and accredited appraiser of fine arts, dedicated to preserving Southern culture and foodways. Author of the award-winning community family cookbook GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’, and editor of ZEBRA TALES (Tailgating Recipes from the Ladies of the NFLRA), Triplette is a member of the Association of Food Journalists, Southern Foodways Alliance and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. Check out the GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’ website and follow Laurie’s food adventures on Facebook and Twitter.

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