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Recipes to Add Spice to Cinco de Mayo

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Celebrate and party on Cinco de Mayo (the celebration of the 1862 Mexican army's victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla) with delicious Mexican fare.

Several inspirations can be found in two recently released Mexican cookbooks.

Los Angeles resident Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee shares recipes for quick and easy dishes. New York chef/restaurateur Roberto Santibanez focuses on techniques and numerous classic Mexican sauces such as moles, pipianes, adobos and salsas -- the building blocks for creating terrific meals -- as well as how to use them in carne asada, tacos, tamales, enchiladas, chilaquiles and more. Many of his recipes can be time-consuming.

"We don't have a set of recipes that we do for Cinco de Mayo," says Santibanez, author of "Truly Mexican." "In Mexico, it's an official day with everyone off, but there's no official celebration. In the U.S., it has become a day for celebration."

Although it might seem a little strange for Lee, a native of South Korea, who moved to this country with her parents at age 7, to write "Quick & Easy Mexican Cooking: More Than 80 Everyday Recipes," (Chronicle Books; $22.95), she loves Mexican food.

"My real education in Mexican cuisine began when my parents bought a Mexican grocery store in the San Fernando Valley during the early

'80s," points out the author who grew up eating Korean food and has written two cookbooks on the topic. Her family lived in the Valley and she helped out at the market after school and in the summers during her high school years.

Unfamiliar with Mexican food, Lee began experimenting with chile peppers, tasting salsas, cleaning spikes off nopalitas and more. As she became more curious, market customers would bring dishes from their kitchens and share recipes.

"And then I started cooking Mexican food at home. I learned secrets of each family's mole, where to get the best chocolates and how to turn out rows and rows of enchiladas without even breaking a sweat," says the self-taught cook.

After graduation from UC San Diego, she lived in San Miguel de Allende for two years immersing herself in the food and flavors.

"People think it takes a long time to make anything Mexican at home, but it doesn't have to," she says. "You can make a salsa in a blender or a food processor. If you have a tortilla press, you can make corn tortillas in 15 minutes (flour can take longer because you have to roll them out by hand to get them thinner)." If you're afraid of spicy chiles, use Anaheim, which are never spicy.

The book is filled with her accessible versions of recipes (made with ingredients found in supermarkets or Mexican grocery stores) collected during her youth and travels over the years. They take 30 minutes or less of active/work time with baking or cooking time additional.

"I don't compromise flavor to get food on the table easily. I love to cook but I don't like to labor."

When it comes to shortcuts, heat tortillas for enchiladas in the oven for five minutes after spraying them with cooking spray, she suggests. It's much faster and more efficient than dipping the tortillas one by one in sauce.

"I like canned chipotles better than dried as they have better flavor and you don't have to reconstitute them." To roast tomatillos and give them extra smoky flavor, remove the paper on the outside, halve them and broil (8 to 10 minutes watching carefully) until the skins are somewhat blistered and blackened. Roast tomatoes the same way. When making salsa, throw them, skins and all, in a blender or food processor.

Santibanez approaches Mexican cuisine from another perspective. "Truly Mexican" (Wiley; $35) is more of a compendium about technique and sauce-making (with 140 recipes) than a book of dishes. If you learn to make a sauce first, you can serve it with fish, chicken, pork or beef, notes Santibanez.

Times required to make his recipes "vary enormously and range from 15 minutes to hours. Nothing is really easy, but the ingredients are all supermarket accessible," he says. You have to learn how to deal with ingredients (i.e. dozens of chiles) and get a handle on basic techniques (such as roasting a tomato in an oven, toaster oven or on top of the stove, which takes about 20 minutes), but once you have, things become simpler. "The everyday food of Mexico is as easy to reproduce as Italian food but demands different techniques.

"I grew up in a typical Mexican family in a household of fantastic cooks -- my mom, aunts, great aunts, grandmother." Everything revolved around food.

"My cooking style (today) is contemporary urban Mexican," says the chef/owner of Fonda restaurant in Brooklyn and culinary partner of The Taco Truck in Hoboken, N.J., who is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.

"My food is based on traditional flavors, techniques, color and textures that I've updated." Having traveled extensively in Mexico, he will often pair a sauce from one region with meat or fish from another.

His five rules of great Mexican cooking include: buy the best ingredients; toast chiles and roast tomatoes; look, touch and smell; pay attention to the texture; and season to taste.



--1 ripe mango (peeled and pit discarded), diced (about 1 ½ cups) --2 or 3 ripe tomatoes, diced (about 1 ½ cups) --½ medium red onion, finely chopped --½ cup OR more coarsely chopped fresh cilantro --2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice --1 serrano pepper, minced (discard seeds and veins of pepper if you don't want salsa too spicy) --2 garlic cloves, minced --½ teaspoon salt --½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In a medium bowl, combine mango, tomatoes, onion, cilantro, lime juice, serrano and garlic. Add the salt and black pepper and toss. Let sit for about 5 minutes, then taste to see if you need to add a bit more salt or black pepper.

Cover and refrigerate about 30 minutes or serve immediately. Makes 3 ½ cups. Serve with blue corn or other tortilla chips.

NOTE: Also good served with grilled meaty fish (mahi mahi, swordfish or salmon).

From "Quick & Easy Mexican Cooking: More Than 80 Everyday Recipes," by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee.


--12 (5-to-6-inch) corn tortillas --Cooking oil spray --Vegetable oil --2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 1 pound), sliced into small strips --1 teaspoon dried oregano --½ teaspoon salt --½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper --1 onion, sliced --1 green OR red bell pepper, sliced --12 ounces queso blanco, grated --1 (28-ounce) can green chile enchilada sauce

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Coat each tortilla on both sides with cooking oil spray. Place the tortillas on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake 5 minutes to soften them. Remove from oven and set aside. Leave oven on, but reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees F.

Heat about 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add chicken, oregano, salt and black pepper and saut until chicken is opaque on the outside, about 5 minutes. Add another tablespoon of oil, then add onion and pepper slices and saut until chicken is cooked through, another 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat and pour chicken mixture into a large bowl. Add 2/3 queso blanco and 1 cup enchilada sauce and toss together.

Coat a 9x13-inch baking dish with vegetable oil spray. Lay all tortillas out flat. Spoon some of filling into middle of each tortilla, dividing evenly. Fold each tortilla over into thirds and place filled enchilada, seam-side down, in baking dish. Repeat until all tortillas are assembled and baking dish is full.

Pour over remaining enchilada sauce and sprinkle with remaining cheese. Bake about 15 minutes, until sauce is bubbling and cheese is melted. Remove from oven and serve 2 per diner. Makes 6 entree servings.

From "Quick & Easy Mexican Cooking: More Than 80 Everyday Recipes," by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee.

--Vegetable oil --1/3 cup unsalted butter --2 tablespoons brown sugar --½ teaspoon salt --1 cup all-purpose flour --2 large eggs --1 teaspoon vanilla --¼ cup granulated sugar --1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Over medium-high heat, heat a deep skillet with about 2 inches vegetable oil to 375 degrees F (be sure oil is hot enough to avoid soggy, limp churros).

While oil is heating up, add 1 cup water, butter, brown sugar and salt to a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and quickly stir in flour until mixture forms into a ball (takes about 1 minute).

In a separate bowl, whisk together eggs and vanilla, then add to flour mixture, stirring until well combined. The dough should be sticky.

Combine granulated sugar and cinnamon on a plate.

Put the dough into a decorating tube or pastry bag fitted with a large star tip. Check that oil is ready (see Note), then squeeze (pipe) dough into oil, starting from the outside of the pan and spiraling in.

Fry until golden brown all over, about 2 minutes on each side. Using a slotted spoon or long wooden chopsticks, remove churros from oil and place on a large plate lined with paper towels to absorb the grease. While churros are still warm, roll them over the cinnamon-sugar mixture until well coated. Repeat until all dough is used. Cut churros into 4-inch-long pieces, being careful not to burn yourself. Enjoy them immediately. Makes 24 churros. Serve with chocolate dipping sauce or Mexican hot chocolate.

NOTE: To test oil temperature without a kitchen thermometer, place a dollop of dough in oil. When oil is hot enough, the dough will begin to bubble up right away.

From "Quick & Easy Mexican Cooking: More Than 80 Everyday Recipes," by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee.


--6 (6-ounce) fish fillets OR steaks, such as red snapper, black bass, striped bass, bluefish OR salmon --1 teaspoon fine salt OR 2 teaspoons kosher salt --½ cup Basic Guajillo Adobo (recipe follows) --2 tablespoons mild olive oil OR vegetable oil --1 lime, cut into wedges

If using fillets, score skin in a crosshatch pattern with a sharp knife. Pat fillets OR steaks dry and season with salt, then coat both sides with Basic Guajillo Adobo and marinate in refrigerator 30 minutes.

Heat a large heavy skillet over medium heat, then add 1 tablespoon oil and cook 2 to 3 pieces of fish, flesh side down, 2 minutes. Turn fish over and cook, pressing down on fish to stop fillets from curling (the scored skin will help), until just cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer pieces to a baking sheet and keep warm in a preheated 200-degree oven while cooking remaining batches of fish with more oil as necessary. Squeeze lime over fish before serving. Serve immediately with corn tortillas, salsa, rice and beans. Makes 6 servings.

From "Truly Mexican," by Roberto Santibanez With JJ Goode and Shelley Wiseman.


--3 ounces guajillo chiles (12), wiped clean, stemmed, slit open, seeded and deveined --Water --2 garlic cloves, peeled --1½ teaspoons apple cider vinegar --¾ teaspoon fine salt OR 1½ teaspoons kosher salt --¾ teaspoon sugar --Rounded ¼ teaspoon ground cumin

Heat a comal, griddle or heavy skillet over medium-low heat, and toast chiles 2 or 3 at a time, turning over and pressing down on them with tongs frequently, until fragrant and insides have changed color slightly, about 1 minute per batch. Soak chiles in enough cold water to cover until soft, about 30 minutes. Drain and discard soaking water.

Put ¾ cup fresh water in blender jar with chiles and remaining ingredients. Blend until smooth, at least 3 minutes, adding a little more water if necessary to puree. If you'd like a silky texture, strain adobo through a medium-mesh sieve. Now use the highly flavored puree as a marinade for fish, seafood or meat. This adobo can be kept refrigerated up to 5 days or in freezer up to 1 month. Makes 1 ½ cups.

From "Truly Mexican," by Roberto Santibanez With JJ Goode and Shelley Wiseman.


--1/3 pound tomato (about 1 medium) --½ ounce guajillo chiles (2), wiped clean, stemmed, slit open, seeded and deveined --2 to 4 dried rbol chiles, wiped clean and stemmed --4 cloves garlic, peeled --Mild olive oil OR vegetable oil --1 cup shelled skinless peanuts (5 ounces), preferably raw --1/8 teaspoon whole black peppercorns --2 whole cloves --¼ teaspoon dried thyme --¼ teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican --4 to 5 cups stock (chicken OR other) --1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar OR more to taste --1 teaspoon sugar --½ teaspoon fine salt OR 1 teaspoon kosher salt --2 pounds pork tenderloin (2 to 3 pieces), silver skin and excess fat removed

Set oven to broil and preheat. Alternatively, you can preheat oven to 500 degrees F. If you're using the oven broiler, position rack 8 inches from heat source. Have ready a large bowl to hold ingredients as finished roasting and removing from oven.

Core the tomato and cut a small "X" through the skin on opposite end. Put tomato, cored side up, on a foil-lined baking pan. Roast without turning, until blackened on top and cooked to core, 20 to 30 minutes. Slip skin from the tomato.

Meanwhile, heat a comal, griddle or heavy skillet over medium-low heat and toast guajillo chiles, rbol chiles and garlic, turning over frequently, until guajillos are fragrant, about 1 minute, rbol chiles are dark brown, 3 to 4 minutes and garlic is just tender and golden brown with some blackened spots, 8 to 10 minutes.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a medium skillet over medium heat, and cook peanuts, stirring constantly, until deep golden brown, about 2 minutes. Transfer peanuts and oil to a medium bowl. Soak peanuts, roasted chiles, peppercorns, cloves, thyme and oregano in 2 ½ cups stock 30 minutes. Soaking the ingredients will make blending easier, but if you're in a hurry and have a good blender, you can skip this step and just add the stock when you blend.

Blend peanut mixture along with tomato, garlic, vinegar, sugar and salt in the blender jar until very smooth, about 3 minutes.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a 3- to 4-quart heavy pot over medium heat until it shimmers, then add blended mixture and simmer, stirring frequently, until it has thickened slightly, about 10 minutes. As it's simmering, swish a little liquid around in blender and add it to the pot. Add enough stock to thin sauce to a velvety consistency that thickly coats a wooden spoon but isn't gloppy. Cook, uncovered (use a splatter screen so the sauce doesn't make a mess of the stove), stirring occasionally, until small pools of oil appear on the surface of the sauce, about 35 minutes. As the sauce simmers, add more stock, as necessary, to maintain the velvety consistency. Season to taste with additional vinegar, sugar and salt.

Fry pork tenderloins in hot oil in a saut pan, turning constantly 15 minutes or until cooked to desired doneness. Let rest 5 minutes off heat, then cut into slices.

Serve sauce with pork tenderloin slices. Makes 4 cups sauce, enough for 4 to 6 servings. Serve with corn tortillas, rice and beans as desired. Sauce improves after a day in the refrigerator; it can be kept refrigerated up to 5 days without meat or frozen up to 1 month.

From "Truly Mexican," by Roberto Santibanez With JJ Goode and Shelley Wiseman.


--1 pound tomatoes (about 3 medium) --¼ cup mild olive oil OR vegetable oil --1 cup finely chopped white onion --2 large garlic cloves, minced --1 fresh serrano OR jalape o chile, minced, including seeds --2 cups fresh corn kernels (from 2 to 3 ears) OR 10 ounces frozen corn kernels, thawed --1½ teaspoons dried oregano, preferably Mexican, crumbled --½ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg --¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper --2 pounds zucchini OR calabacitas, cut into ½-inch dice --½ cup Mexican crema OR heavy whipping cream --1 cup coarsely grated (4 ounces) Cheddar cheese --¾ teaspoon fine salt OR 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt --1 cup chopped cilantro

Preheat oven or toaster oven on broil setting. Alternatively, preheat oven to 500 degrees F. If you're using oven broiler, position rack 8 inches from heat source.

Core tomatoes and cut a small "X" through the skin on opposite ends. Put tomatoes, cored sides up, on a foil-lined baking pan and roast until tops have blackened and tomatoes are cooked to the core, 20 to 30 minutes (check often). Slip skins from tomatoes, discard skins and coarsely chop tomatoes.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a 6- to 7-quart heavy pot over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add onions, garlic, and chile and cook, stirring, until softened, 3 to 5 minutes.

Add corn, oregano, nutmeg and pepper and cook, stirring, until corn is lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Add zucchini and cook, stirring, until it is just tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, crema, cheese and salt and cook, stirring, 5 minutes more. Season to taste with additional salt, and stir in cilantro just before serving. Serve with chicken or skirt steak. Makes 10 servings. Dish can be kept, covered, refrigerator up to 2 days.

From "Truly Mexican," by Roberto Santibanez With JJ Goode and Shelley Wiseman.


--2 ounces tequila --2 ounces Simple Syrup (recipe follows) --1 ounce Cointreau OR Grand Marnier --1 ounce lime juice --Lime wheel, for garnish

Combine all ingredients except lime wheel in a cocktail shaker filled with 3/4 cup cubed ice and shake vigorously. Pour with the ice or strain into a glass, depending on personal preference. If serving frozen, combine ingredients in a blender with 3/4 cup crushed ice, blend until smooth, and pour into a margarita or other glass. Garnish with a lime wheel. Makes 1 serving.

SIMPLE SYRUP: In a small bowl or glass, combine ½ cup granulated sugar and ½ cup hot water and stir until completely dissolved. Let cool completely before using.

From "101 Margaritas," by Kim Haasarud.

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