For those with Mexican heritage, Cinco de Mayo is a day to commemorate a strong and vibrant culture – and for all of us, it’s a great excuse to cook up some amazing food.
Literally translated, the fifth of May commemorates a battle that took place in Puebla, (just east of Mexico City) where the Mexican army stationed at the city’s walled fort fended off, and then defeated, the much-better-equipped French army in 1862.
Our family visited Puebla a couple years ago and happened to wander in during Flag Day, or Dia de la Bandera, on Feb 24. At exactly 5 p.m., city representatives and members of the army walked through the streets carrying a large, Mexican flag. In the shadow of the Cathedral of Puebla and with the sun setting as they hoisted the flag into place, everyone in the city’s crowded central plaza stopped to honor the flag. The crowd sang together Mexican National Anthem. My three girls, who had endured a long day of sight-seeing (and were anxious to try out a caramel-filled churro) stood still as they felt the crowd stiffen and come to attention with everyone’s eyes drawn to the flag, which stretched out at nearly 16 feet or so, from my vantage point. The goose-bump moment was pure bliss – and I felt more than a tinge of the overwhelming pride that the people there must have for their rich heritage.
Truth be told, my love of the Mexican culture is closely tied to my love of their food. And the experience was all the more wonderful because after the ceremony we did pick up a few churros – the dried dough cylinders that are crispy on the outside and chewy and sweet inside – from street vendors near the square (think doughnuts fashioned into a easy-to-carry stick). Of course, we had to try the fresh paletas too, which are creamy popsicles that don’t have equals in the U.S. Local vendors create their own varieties using fresh berries, fruits, coconut and a long list of flavors I couldn’t always identify. (I’ve seen jumbo packs of Michoacan paletas at Costco; they’re good, but not nearly as tasty as the real thing.)
To create your own taste of Mexico for Cinco de Mayo, I wanted to share something that would be fun to do as a family. Fresh tortillas and sopes are easy to make and don’t require a lot of hard-to-find ingredients. In fact, the only ingredient that’s really essential is masa (also called masa harina), a Mexican corn flour that’s available at most grocery stores (it’s not the same thing as cornmeal).
To create your own tortillas, you combine two parts masa to one part water. The dough should be slightly sticky, but firm (I toss in just a pinch of salt). If you have a tortilla press, line it with plastic wrap on both sides and then place a ball with about two tablespoons of the masa dough in the center and flatten. We also use two cutting boards pressed together to form tortillas. They don’t get nearly as thin as they should – but they taste just as good.
Handmade tortillas tend to be less pliable then the kind you find at the grocery store, but the fresh, corn flavor is worth the added chewiness. Once you form your tortillas, cook them briefly on both sides on large, flat-bottomed skillet. They should just be getting slightly browned when you pull them off the heat (remember to cook both sides). Tuck the cooked tortillas into a folded kitchen cloth, or a tortilla warmer until you’re ready to serve them.
If your kids haven’t had fresh tortillas before, they may be a bit thrown off by the rustic flavor at first. In Mexico, traditional tacos are made using a fresh tortilla, which is then filled with meat or another spiced ingredient. The tacos are topped with diced onion and cilantro. That’s it. No fried shells, no cheese.
For those looking for a little more pizzazz, sopes are thicker corn disks that are usually slightly fried on the bottom and filled on top with refried beans, sometimes a meat, fresh Mexican cheese like queso fresco, diced lettuce, and then a dabble or two of Mexican creme and/or salsa.
Sopes require a little more time (and heat-resistant fingers) to put together. Using a rolling pin, roll out the masa dough as you would cookie dough. Keep the dough about 1/4-inch thick. With a biscuit cutter – or, alternatively, a large-rimmed glass – cut out dough disks, enough so that there’s two or three per person.
Cook the disks on a large, flat-bottomed skillet that’s been brought up to a medium-high heat. Here’s the tricky part: As the sopes are cooking, you need to use your fingertips the pinch together the outside of the disk on one side so that it forms a ridge. This will hold the ingredients inside the sope once it’s filled – after all, sopes are a handheld food. If you’re sensitive to a little heat, you can skip this step and just plan on a little messy eating.
Keep the cooked sopes in either a kitchen cloth or a tortilla warmer until you’re ready to plate the meal. You can make the sopes a day ahead, store them in the refrigerator, and reheat them when you’re ready to eat.
To serve, add a 1/2 tablespoon of canola oil to a large, flat-bottomed skillet on medium-high heat. Briefly fry the bottom of the sopes until they become just barely browned and slightly crisp. Top with warm refried beans, a teaspoon or so of your favorite salsa, diced lettuce (with a little fresh lime squeezed onto the pieces), a sprinkling of cheese (grated Munster or Monterey Jack cheese is a fine stand-in for crumbled queso fresco) and then a dollop of sour cream (which substitutes just fine for Mexican crème).
To make the sopes a little fancier, we put the sour cream into a Ziploc baggie and add just a little milk. Shake the bag and then push all of the air out. Cut a small hole in a corner of the bag and then drizzle the top of the sope with the crème mixture. Add a sprig of fresh cilantro to finish it off, and you’re ready to serve. You can add meat to the dish – pieces of rotisserie chicken are an easy option, but you honestly won’t miss the meat. Promise!
Although these sopes seem small, they’re filling. Just three will leave you satisfied, four stuffed. Add even more fun to this dish by letting your kids create differently shaped sopes. My husband made heart-shaped ones for Valentine’s Day – any large-sized cookie cutter should work. Creating these simple, fresh flavors together as a family is the perfect way to infuse a little Mexican culture at your dinner table. And they’re good to the last crumb!