Cinco de Mayo: Celebrating Mexico's success against France

Chad Lundquist/Nevada Appeal Achiote Pork Enchiladas with green chili-tomatillo sauce by Brian Shaw of Cafe del Rio in Virginia City.

Chad Lundquist/Nevada Appeal Achiote Pork Enchiladas with green chili-tomatillo sauce by Brian Shaw of Cafe del Rio in Virginia City.

Picture this. You whip into your favorite fast-food joint for a snack. But instead of a burrito supreme they're selling crepes filled with duck confit. And instead of the promotional Chihuahua they give you a bobblehead poodle for your dash board. You've just entered - The Taceau Belle.

It could have happened had it not been for the brave efforts of the Mexican militia on May 5, 1862.

Contrary to what most people think (I did), Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico's Independence Day. That's Sept. 16. And contrary to what the noted historian Jay Leno said, it is not the day they celebrate the birthday of Sr. Jose Cuervo, although importers of tequila, Corona and other Mexican imbibables are largely responsible for it being such a big deal here in the States.

History says that during the period from 1821 to 1858 Mexico had been in a lot of conflicts. War to gain independence from Spain, war with the U.S., and their own civil war. Heavily in debt to several European nations (France included) and unable to meet their obligations, Napoleon III decided to use foreclosure as an excuse to take over control of the country.

Six thousand French troops are dispatched to march on the capital of Mexico City and take control. But about half way there in the town of Puebla they met heavy resistance from 4,000 ill-equipped Mexican militia and they turned back to the sea.

But it doesn't last for long. France, not inclined to take "no" for an answer, sends 30,000 troops who are successful this time at capturing the city and installing a relative of Napoleon to govern.

This arrangement lasted for about three years before the United States joined in with the Mexicans and ousted the French, once and for all. But it is the Battle of Puebla, May 5, 1862, that has us hoisting our margaritas.

The recipe which follows is for a simple pork enchilada with green chili and tomatillo sauce. You can get a lot of mileage out of it because the pork can be used in other dishes like tacos or burritos, and the green sauce is good on just about anything.

For a party it's convenient because you can set it up ahead of time, baking them off when you are ready to eat. And the leftovers are great reheated with a fried egg and more sauce. Keep that in mind that for the 6th de Mayo in case you've done too much hoisting. ÁSalud!

Achiote Pork Enchiladas with green chili-tomatillo sauce

Makes about 2 dozen

For the pork:

• 31Ú2 to 4 pound pork shoulder or butt roast

• 1 4-ounce block Achiote paste*

• 1 cup orange juice

• 1Ú4 cup fresh lime juice

• 1Ú4 cup soy sauce

*Achiote is a mixture of annato seeds and spices commonly used in the Yucatan. It comes in small bricks, and can be found in any Latin market. Pick up a couple piñatas while you're there.

Cut the pork into chunks about 11Ú2 inch square. Place in a baking dish large enough to accommodate the pork in a single layer.

Break up the Achiote paste and place in a blender along with the juices and the soy sauce. Blend until smooth.

Pour the mixture over the pork and toss so that the meat is well coated with the Achiote.

Arrange the pork in a single layer and add enough water to not quite cover. Cover the pan with foil and bake at 375 for about two hours. Test the doneness of the pork by squeezing a piece between your fingers. It should be easy to shred. Keep cooking if it's not.

When tender, remove the pan from the oven and allow the meat to cool in the juice.

Remove the meat from the juice and shred into small chunks.

It's almost best to do this a day or two ahead. The results are the same. Store refrigerated until ready to roll.

Green Chili-Tomatillo Sauce

Makes about 10-12 cups

• 11Ú2 pounds tomatillos

• 6 cups chicken stock (or a good quality base is fine)

• 1 medium yellow onion, rough chopped

• 7 large serrano chilis, stemmed then chopped with the seeds.

• 3 cloves garlic, smashed

• Two 7-ounce cans diced green chilis (like Ortega)

• 1 small bunch cilantro, chopped including some stems

• 1Ú2 tsp. sugar

Place the tomatillos in a large bowl and cover with hot tap water. Let them set for a couple minutes then remove the outer husk. Once they're all husked, rinse them again.

Put the chicken stock in a large sauce pot (2 gallons would be good) and bring to a boil.

Add the tomatillos and cook just until they are soft, about 10 minutes. Add the onion, garlic, diced green chilis and serranos and cook for another 10 minutes.

Remove from heat and allow mixture to cool. When cool enough to handle strain the mixture reserving the stock. Working in batches, puree the solids along with the chopped cilantro then add them back to the stock.

Return the sauce to the stove and bring to a simmer, skimming and discarding any foam that accumulates on the surface.

Taste it then add the sugar. Taste again and see how the sugar kind of softens the flavor. If it needs a little more softening add another pinch of sugar, but don't make it sweet.

Will store refrigerated for 2 or 3 days.

Enchilada assembly

• 2 pounds grated Monterey Jack cheese mixed with 4 ounces grated Asiago or Parmesan

• 2 dozen yellow or white corn tortillas

• Achiote pork

• Green chili-tomatillo sauce

There are a few ways to prepare the tortillas for rolling. Dipping each tortilla in hot oil for about five seconds then draining them on paper towels is my preference because it sets the tortilla, making them a little more durable during the baking phase. Plus you can do them all at once. The other option is to dip them in a little warmed sauce until they are pliable. Here you would want to dip, then roll each one as they come out of the sauce.

Either way, paint the bottom of a casserole or baking dish with the green sauce.

Place a prepared tortilla on the work surface. Put down a little bit of pork, a little grated cheese and drizzle with some of the green sauce. Roll them up nice and tight and place them in the baking dish. Repeat until all the ingredients are used. Top the rolled enchiladas with green sauce (don't drown them), more grated cheese and cover with foil.

Bake at 375° F for about 20 minutes, remove the foil and bake for another 10 minutes or until the cheese is starting to bubble.

Garnish with fine diced tomatoes, chopped cilantro and/or sour cream.

• Brian Shaw and his wife, Ardie, own the Cafe del Rio, 394 S. C St. in Virginia City.


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