Celebrating Cinco de Mayo

The fifth of May marks a 19th century military victory, but more importantly for you, it represents an opportunity to showcase culinary expertise and tap into the popularity of Mexican favorites.

Recipe requisites for Cinco de Mayo are easy to come by today since vendors from coast to coast routinely stock the basics: from limes, jalapenos and cilantro to a host of prepared products such as tamales, burritos, flan mixes, churros and authentic soups. Authentic music (especially the CDs of Luis Cabron directing the Philadelphia Orchestra) and decorations, including serapes, maracas and piñatas, are all easy to find—and are necessary elements in successful Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

Moreover, customers have steadily become more familiar with Mexican fare by dining out at local eateries or in their own cafeterias where many Mexican dishes are regularly cycled through the menu. Following are several descriptions of how non-commercial operators plan for Cinco de Mayo annually and keep the spirit alive all year long.

Some locations, such as 395-bed El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, CA, devote an entire week to Cinco de Mayo celebrations. According to operations manager Valen Gancayco, about the only thing missing from her celebration is a live mariachi band. “We do have a CD player—the music is only heard in the servery—and we decorate with whatever our staff can bring in,” she reports.

Super salsa: “But the food is very authentic since we have four Mexican cooks and many Mexican customers who appreciate the ‘real thing.’ Every­one loves our salsa, made from scratch every day; for Cinco de Mayo we make three different types: mild, medium and hot, which customers call ‘wimpy,’ ‘daredevil’ and ‘inferno.’ Many like it on their eggs for breakfast and some who brown bag lunch just buy our salsa and guacamole.”

Gancayco often utilizes prepared product or purchases items such as breads and pastries from a local Mexican bakery. “For our soup bar, we purchase Adobe Chicken, Mexican Tortilla Soup, and Diablo Shrimp and Tequila Chowder,” she says. “We always menu two varieties each day and try to have one clear and one cream. Special Mexican cheese and cut up tortillas are also available at this bar.”

El Camino customers can visit the taco bar for portions of shredded chicken, beef or pork, but during the Cinco de Mayo celebration they’re drawn to such hot entrees as chicken mole poblano—this mole version made with rich cocoa—or perhaps pollo loco, a chicken dish prepared from skinless breasts marinated in lime and beer.

Gancayco guarantees that chicken prepared this way won’t dry out even after sitting for an hour on the steamtable. For a traditional beef dish, there’s cocido: large chunks of beef cooked with the bone in but removed before service.

Hot tamales: Tamales, a traditional corn masa staple, are a must-menu item. They’re purchased from a local company that makes them from scratch and customers think they’re the best, she says. “We also use chayote, a Mexican green squash,” she adds. “When it’s cut up it looks like a light green potato. You could steam it or sauté with onions and tomato or add a bit of shrimp or bacon.

“We also use jicama, which (people) in the Philippines consider to be a fruit although it grows in the ground. You can eat it raw or cooked with other vegetables. It has a crunchy texture and when it’s ripe it has a sweet, nutty flavor. It’s also called Mexican potato, yam bean or ahipa. It’s good if you’re eating a lot of hot foods since—with a water content of about 80%—it’s cool, crunchy, sweet and comfortable.”

More than 17 countries are represented among the approximately 810 students attending The Lawrenceville (N.J.) School, a private prep school which includes grades 9-12, and Gary Giberson, general manager and executive chef is determined to create authentic menus for them to sample and enjoy throughout the school year.

Staff input: For the annual Cinco de Mayo celebration at this AVI Food Systems account, Giberson relies heavily upon the suggestions of several Latino staff members. Since almost 8% of his “customers” are practicing vegetarians, spinach enchiladas, menued successfully for this event last year, are a good choice, he finds.

“You definitely want to make this dish ahead,” Giberson says. Here’s how he explains its preparation: Blanch the spinach and roast and peel poblano peppers, then chop both. In a saucepan sauté onions and garlic in butter, then add chili powder, cayenne, salt and pepper. Combine with the spinach, then fold the mixture into a cream sauce of butter and half-and-half so it looks like creamed spinach.

It all gets wrapped into a corn tortilla: top it with another sauce (prepared from vegetable stock and a roux of flour and butter), plus heavy cream. Pour this sauce over the pan of enchiladas, then finish with queso fresca, a semi-soft cheese like farmer’s cheese, plus Monterey Jack cheese.

Chicken empanadas are also a student favorite. Even among the uninitiated, one bite and they’re looking for many more from the self-service cart Giberson sets up for such special event dinners. “How many do we make? Too many! Probably about 2,200 and they’re gone in no time,” he says.

To prepare the empanada filling, sauté onions, sliced scallions and chopped garlic in a bit of olive oil. Add cooked chicken breast, chopped fine, plus chopped green and black olives, crushed red pepper flakes and pepper; bring up to temperature and remove from the heat.

The dough takes about 20 minutes to prepare. Mix flour, yellow corn meal and masa harina (a white corn flour), baking powder, salt and pepper; cream the lard (or butter), add water, then roll out the dough like a log; slice, then roll out into circles. Spread the filling on the dough, then lightly wet the edges and fold over the filling to form a half moon. Using fingers or a fork, crimp the edges then batch fry at 350°F for two to three minutes.

Hot treat: Going for a major Cinco de Mayo fiesta “wow” from these students, Giberson knows that fried ice cream is over the top—and he’ll have to move fast to do it right. “Fried ice cream needs to be made and served immediately,” he cautions.

“Scoops of vanilla ice cream are portioned onto parchment paper, then put into the blast chiller for an hour. Remove them from the chiller, roll them in sugar and cinnamon corn flake crumbs, then freeze them again. Next, fry them, in batches, in vegetable oil, place in disposable cups, drizzle with honey or chocolate sauce. Finally, present them out front on a chilled platter and serve immediately. It’s quite an undertaking!”

Preparing for Cinco de Mayo promotions often starts weeks in advance. At 475-bed Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Houston, Cinco de Mayo is promoted via banners, flyers and e-mail. The holiday also calls for a change in production methods. “Chicken and beef enchiladas [from a prepared product] are served here on a regular basis, but for Cinco de Mayo they’re from scratch, even though none of our cook staff are Mexican,” says Ken Blakes, assistant chief of food production.

But that’s not the only time Mexican food is served, of course. Mexican standards are menued for breakfast, lunch and dinner, all prepared according to VA recipes. Breakfast burritos and tacos are made from scratch as are the scrambled eggs Ranchero-style (i.e., with a tomato sauce of peppers and onions) plus a side of refried beans.

“Santa Fe chicken with peppers, onion, black olives and black beans along with Spanish rice, red sauce and Monterey Jack or Cheddar cheese on top, is always popular,” Blakes adds.

Most of the 500 lunchtime cafeteria customers at 279-bed St. Francis Hospital, The Heart Center, in Roslyn, NY, participate in the Cinco de Mayo festivities, reports Maura Dillon, director of food and nutrition services. In planning ahead, she meets with the five members of her production staff as well as with the operations manager and speaks to the various vendors to get a line on product availability.

Super snapper: “We’ve found really good frozen products including fried plantains and arepa, a corn patty with cheese in the middle,” Dillon says. “We make arroz con pollo [chicken with rice] as well as rice and beans from scratch. But our baked red snapper Vera Cruz is a great hit with more than 200 portions sold at lunch and an equal number at dinner whenever we menu it throughout the year.”

To prepare, frozen fillets are thawed, baked, then topped with a mixture of sautéed peppers, sliced black olives, red onions and tomatoes.

Perhaps it’s the long, cold winters in Manchester, NH, or maybe it’s because of the influx of the Latino population over the past four or five years. Whatever the reason, Joe Stanislaw, director of food and nutrition services at 265-bed Elliot Hospital, loves to “let staff have fun with Cinco de Mayo and dress accordingly if they wish.”

For the past few years, Stanislaw has partnered with local restaurants on various occasions and for this event it’s an establishment called Shortey’s Mexican Grill, located in Bedford, NH, that shares its chef and several of his recipes.

“Last year, Shortey’s did its Calico Chicken Tortilla Soup, which we often have on our cycle menu now, as well as its chimichangas and portabella quesadillas off our grill area,” he says. “Customers—nearly 1,000 at lunchtime —get to see everything being done and they can customize the ingredients. The restaurant gets the exposure while sharing their recipes and expertise with us.”

Mexican madness: Stanislaw is so enthusiastic about the synergy created between his production staff and Shortey’s that the entire menu for Cinco de Mayo will focus on Mexican fare from the soup bar to a taco bar and the grill. “We’re also planning a Mexican pizza with chorizo, poblanos, jalapenos and perhaps lime and garlic marinated shrimp,” he says.

Dessert will feature Shortey’s Mexican flan as well as rice pudding and “we’ll probably also do virgin margaritas,” he continues. “We’ll play Mexican music from a portable CD player in the servery and we’re always careful to take down and store the decorations for use again next year.”

There’s no doubt that music helps make a Cinco de Mayo promo a success, and Peter Alfaro, executive chef at Whittier (CA) College knows this. So a mariachi band from a local Mexican restaurant will make an appearance from noon to one o’clock during the Cinco de Mayo celebration he’s planning. Alfaro brought them in to entertain last October for El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) theme, so he knows it’s the perfect festive touch.

Buffet and birria: He also plans to set up an all-you-can-eat buffet outside for the approximately 700 students on campus, and made-to-order tortillas will be the menu headliner. “We’ll also offer birria, a spicy Mexican beef stew that needs to be prepared a day ahead. You marinate the beef or lamb in cherry wine and ancho chilis for at least 12 hours.”

Pollo asada, a dish prepared from whole chicken on the bone cut into sixths, must also be prepared a day ahead. The marinade includes cilantro, lime juice, orange juice, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper to taste, plus a bit of cumin and chili powder. “It’s a ‘must’ and you can’t go wrong,” Alfaro asserts. “Next day you grill it, top with fresh salsa and put it out alongside tomatillo rice—long grain rice prepared with roasted poblano chilis so that it’s a green rice—and frijoles.”

Alfaro, a native of El Salvador, brings his own special touch to the preparation of the 20 gallons of ranchero beans (a.k.a. frijoles charros) that go quickly during the celebration at this Bon Appetit Management Co. account. To prepare, sauté bacon pieces, chorizo sausage, ham or sliced hot dogs with onions in bacon grease then mix with boiled pinto beans, fresh cilantro and diced tomatoes. Season with cumin, chili powder, a bit of salt and garlic.

For a stronger flavor, Alfaro suggests adding dry oregano to balance out the flavor of the cumin.

To round out the buffet set up—complete with red, white and green table linens (the colors of the Mexican flag)—there’s a choice of dessert: typically a lime flan and bunuelos (deep-fried flour tortillas sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, somewhat similar to funnel cakes).

For his 500 lunchtime customers, Paul Huddleson, Aramark’s executive chef at Citigroup in Centennial, CO, plans to be out on the line at the World station for a Cinco de Mayo fiesta, along with the team member who’s regularly manning the station. Chicken and beef fajitas will be featured along with Fiesta Rice, a spicy side dish prepared with roasted corn kernels, diced roasted tomatoes seasoned with cumin, chili powder and chopped ancho chilies, all blended into long grain rice. As for the chicken and beef, the “secret ingredient” is just a bit of tequila, Huddleson points out.

Fajita with a kick: “We marinate skinless, boneless breasts overnight in anchiote paste, lime juice, cilantro, fresh chopped jalapenos, salt and pepper, plus a bit of tequila,” Huddleson says. “The beef is skirt steak marinated in chili powder, crushed garlic, lime juice, cilantro, jalpenos, salt and pepper and a bit of tequila. They’ll come through the line and we’ll offer two beef or two chicken fajitas or one of each, plus peppers and onions, a choice of sour cream, homemade guacamole, and homemade pico de gallo as well as chips and two types of homemade salsa at a separate station.”

Keeping things “real fresh and very simple,” Huddleson, with input from five Mexican members of his staff, offers a guacamole for the purist. Firm, dark green avocados are mashed and mixed well with lime juice, fresh chopped cilantro, finely diced tomatoes, finely chopped onions and finely chopped serano chilis, plus salt and pepper to taste. Tightly covered and refrigerated overnight, it’s served with blue, red and yellow corn chips—a must for any Cinco de Mayo celebration. ¡Buen provecho!


Crossing the Border

Corning, Inc., employees can choose to eat in their own dining services cafes—there are six of them on the Corning, NY, campus—or in the nearby Cantina, a Corning-operated casual dining restaurant adjacent to the Rockwell Museum of Western Art. At the Cantina, it’s always “fiesta,” Monday through Saturday, as it will be for Cinco de Mayo, of course.

Every year, though, the foodservice staff puts on a celebration just down the road at the Corning Painted School District—two celebrations, actually: one on May 4 at one high school and one on May 5 at the other.

Corning’s executive chef Stephanie Cady works closely with Christine Wallace, the school district’s foodservice director, in putting on the event. “This project crosses the border between dining services and Cantina,” Cady says. “We all work together to put this on.” Since the teen market is one of Cantina’s largest—there are about 500 students at each high school—this effort is a huge marketing campaign with a very low price tag.

Incorporating commodities: Cady’s team takes the school’s commodity list and recreates Cantina’s menu.

"Another executive chef and myself, our director of dining services (Michael Sweet), plus Cantina’s supervisor and manager, participate in the event,” she explains. “The school district buys the food and provides the manpower while we provide the recipes.”

Last year the menu included Southwest corn chowder prepared from corn, a diced potato product, milk, onions, peppers and celery. “We also built burritos with the help of two of their students who are enrolled in (a vocational) culinary program,” she says.

“We slow cooked beef knuckles then seasoned the shredded meat with our own Cantina spices including cumin, coriander and some chili powder. We rolled the burritos [i.e., purchased flour tortillas] as kids came through the line so the tortillas were warm instead of soggy from being held and reheated. It was fresh from the prep table to the plate. We had the additional challenge of keeping within the allotted school meal calories for the day.”

Almost all the ingredients necessary—even raspberry-stuffed churros for dessert—were on the commodity list or available from the school district’s supplier. “We just heated the churros and sprinkled them with powdered sugar,” Cady recalls. “They’re on the regular Cantina menu and a large volume of business is take-out—it’s just across the bridge from East High School. We gave the students gift certificates [churros would be in the $1 to $2 range] and occasionally we can give out $6 gift certificates which would cover a burrito, taco, fresh salsa, fresh fried tortilla chips, a side dish and a drink.”

Cady and her group also brought sombreros, woven blankets, a banner and black and red Cantina shirts, enough for the school’s foodservice staff to wear during the event.