by Kate Heyhoe
Mi casa es su casa—my house is your house. This month I celebrate the comforting home cooked foods of Mexico, starting off with a fiesta of Aged Tequila & Sangrita, and a Red-Chile Entrée on charred green Tomatillo Salsa with Mexican crema — a dish that captures the colors of the Mexican flag. Muy sabroso!
Mexico loves a good party, and celebrations range from such public events as honoring a town's patron saint, to private affairs like the quinceño, a lavish blow-out marking a girl's entrance to society (around her fifteenth birthday).
Nationally, the Fifth of May, El Cinco de Mayo, marks Mexico's 1863 victory over French invaders, and is celebrated as much by gringos north of the border as it is by Mexican nationals. However, true Mexicans at the time of the great battle did not toast their victory with tequila, as we do today, but instead imbibed on pulque— a milky white fermented cactus juice that is undisputedly an acquired taste.
I first tasted pulque in a ramshackle mud-plastered hut somewhere in central Mexico. The local pulqueria was the social watering hole, where farmers and working class could get a low-octane buzz for just a few pesos. Made from the maguey cactus, pulque is a viscous, rustic drink, low in alcohol and always homemade, never bottled. The Aztecs made it solely for religious ceremonies, and anyone caught getting drunk on the stuff was punished. When the Spaniards came along, pulque became a popular street drink, with pulquerias popping up in every town and almost every neighborhood. By 1864, one pulqueria existed for every 410 residents.
Today, pulquerias are rare to find; the drink itself was replaced by refrigerated beverages, German-introduced beer, and the more potent mescal and tequila. Personally, I never did enjoy pulque, but I do have an appreciation for really good tequila, so I can understand how tequila has replaced pulque as the people's drink of choice.
Tequilas have their measures of quality, with tastes ranging from throat burning jet-fuel to mellow, silky smooth varieties. Some tequilas aged in oak barrels now rival such refined and upscale drinks as single-malt scotch, and they can cost about as much. A 750 ml bottle of my personal favorite, Herradura Anejo (golden and smooth, with a smoky, oaky taste), costs as much as $45 north of the border—and due to a blue agave shortage, tequila prices are expected to go up. But since a little aged tequila goes a long way, it's worth indulging in the best.
When drinking a quality aged tequila, please don't obliterate the complex taste with the traditional salt and lime ritual. Instead, serve it as the Mexicans do: with sangrita, a mix of orange juice, grenadine, and a hint of chiles. If you order a "completo" in Mexico, you'll be served two tall shot glasses, one with the tequila and one with sangrita— sip them alternately. Don't shoot them down at once. The completo is a civilized drinking custom that even the most elite Mexicans enjoy, not a fraternity ritual.
Besides aged tequilas, a new handmade tequila, from organic blue agave, has recently hit the shelves. Tequila Nacional, made by El Paso Chile Company's founder Park Kerr, opens brightly on the palate and finishes with a seductive smokey taste. If I was hosting a tequila party or tasting, it would definitely be a solid addition to the bar, and a good companion to salsas and antojitos (Mexican appetizers).
Which brings me to the issue of what to serve with tequila at a fiesta: freshly made, robust food, and lots of it. Bottled salsas are convenient, and some are quite good, but nothing compares to the way a freshly made salsa commands the palate. If you really want to impress your guests, serve a roasted tomatillo or roasted red chile salsa with your meal. Roasting concentrates the flavors of the tomatillos and the chiles, and adds a deep smoky taste that particularly favors the fruitiness of sangrita and aged, oaky tequilas.
For a fine time marked by both good taste and tasty goods, consider this entree: Chile-Red Tuna (or Chicken or Shrimp), grilled and served on a bed of tangy green Thick Roasted-Tomatillo Sauce. You can serve the meal with a simple side dish of shredded cabbage in a light vinaigrette, with a pinch of red chile, or a grilled vegetable mixture, and of course a "completo" of tequila and sangrita. Add a few warm tortillas, a pinata, and some mariachi music and you've got more than just dinner— you've got a fiesta.
Senora Kate Heyhoe
El Global Gourmet
For more information on the culture and culinary aspects of Mexico, consult Lonely Planet's World Food Mexico: For People Who Live to Eat, Drink & Travel (with culinary dictionary, published 2000).
Kate's Global Kitchen for May, 2000:
Mi Casa Es Su Casa Month:
Celebrating Mexican Home Cooking
Also visit Global Destinations: Mexico for more Mexican Recipes.
Copyright © 2000, 2007, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
Modified August 2007
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