Let’s face it: Most Americans don't really care about Cinco de Mayo. Heck, we don't even know what it is — other than an excuse to eat Mexican food and drink (too many) margaritas.
But the celebration needn't be a 5,000-calorie, 70-grams-of-fat affair. Authentic Mexican food is no more fattening than a healthful American meal — provided you skip the fried stuff and don't nosedive into the guacamole.
In case you'd forgotten (or didn't know), Cinco de Mayo (Fifth of May) commemorates that day in 1862, when the Mexican Army defeated the occupying French forces. Though the French greatly outnumbered the Mexicans and hadn’t been beaten in a battle for 50 years, Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza and his troops were determined to prevent them from reaching Mexico City and heroically conquered them in the small town of Puebla.
The president proclaimed the day a national holiday. Today it traditionally includes reenactments of the battle, with people dressed in patriotic clothes; music; festivities — and lots of food. Mole, the celebrated chocolate-based sauce, is also a specialty of the town.
Ivy Stark, the executive chef of the upscale Dos Caminos restaurants, has spent 20 years studying and cooking the country’s regional cuisines. She says the perception that Mexican food in Mexico, like Italian food in Italy, is homogenous is completely wrong and that the tacos and burritos we’ve come to think of as “Mexican” are really Tex-Mex cooking. Diverse topographies and ethnicities and historic influences are just a few of the factors that vary between and even within different regions.
The eastern port city of Veracruz, on the Gulf of Mexico, for example, has a temperate, tropical climate. The early Olmec Indians cultivated vanilla and added the floral pods to many dishes. They also relied on the trio of staples — corn, beans and squash — that are combined in Stark’s calabacitas below. In the arid, mountainous state of Chihuahua, which borders the United States, local cooks took to drying and preserving many foods, including meat, corn kernels and chilies.
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A Mindful Mexican Menu
To prepare this authentic and healthy Cinco de Mayo celebration, I consulted with Stark, whose recipes are below. “Don’t forsake guacamole,” she insists. “It’s a fiesta favorite.” To keep it low on the guilt scale, though, she suggests swapping half of the avocado with a lower-fat vegetable, like peas, green beans or zucchini. Some variations lose the avocado altogether, but I can’t give up that luscious, creamy texture. And remember, avocados have healthy fats as well as many other health benefits.
For an original and even more festive dip, Stark suggests adding diced fruits, like mango, papaya or grapes. Instead of eating guacamole with tortilla chips (a caloric minefield), she suggests batons of jicama or even apple slices, which, while not salty, have a satisfying crunch and are loaded with fiber.
Similarly, fried dishes, like enchiladas, tacos and chiles relleños, while tempting, are loaded with calories and fat. Better to focus on baked or grilled entrées like pescado veracruzano: This oven-baked red snapper is topped with chopped tomatoes, cilantro and jalapeños, and trust me, you won’t miss the fat. It can also be made ahead and served at room temperature.
Or try a crowd-pleasing batch of fajitas filled with seared steak, marinated grilled chicken or vegetables, wrapped in tortillas. Serve them with cooked or raw salsa: Most are fat free and bring a lot of flavor to the dish — but go light on the cheese and sour cream.
When considering sides, avoid refried beans. When cooked from scratch, they are traditionally fried in lard, and the extra cooking strips away most of their nutritional benefits. Unfortunately, the reduced-fat versions I’ve tried are, quite simply, boring. But don’t throw the beans out with the bath water! Whether canned or cooked from scratch, they’re nutritional powerhouses, and there are countless Mexican bean salads and side dish recipes, including Stark’s delicious combo below.
Salads are a great addition to a Mexican feast because they’re satisfying and can be made without much fat. Finely julienned jicama, zucchini and carrots are just a few colorful fixin’ suggestions. You can use salsa (I sometimes add reduced-fat sour cream) and guacamole to make a Mexican-themed dressing.
(MORE: Lighten Up Your Favorite Recipes of Yesteryear)
Stark’s chilly granita makes for a refreshing finale on the event. Jazz it up with a mixture of cut-up summer fruit with a little tequila, Cointreau and fresh lime juice and serve with a platter of Mexican Wedding Cookies. Granted, they’re not totally dietetic, but this is a celebration. Set a colorful table with lime-green, turquoise and fuchsia napkins, hang a piñata, cue up the mariachi music, and it’s fiesta time.
So enjoy the festivities but remember the No. 1 rule of cooking with jalapeños and other hot chile peppers: Always wear latex gloves and never touch your face.
Healthy Cinco de Mayo Menu
Dos Caminos Mango Papaya Habañero Guacamole
Avocados sometimes get a bad rap as being “fattening,” but 2 tablespoons have only 50 calories and are packed with almost 20 vitamins and minerals. In this colorful version, mango and papaya are added to “thin out” the dip.
Serves 4 to 6
2 teaspoons minced white onion, divided in two equal parts
2 teaspoons minced habañero pepper, divided in two parts (see note above, about latex gloves)
2 teaspoons minced cilantro, divided in two parts
3/4 teaspoon salt, divided
1 Hass avocado, cut in half, pit removed
Juice 1/2 lime
1 tablespoon diced fresh ripe mango
1 tablespoon diced fresh ripe papaya, preferably Mexican
Optional serving suggestions: sliced jicama or cucumber and baby carrots
- In a medium bowl using the back of a spoon, mash 1 teaspoon each of the onion, habañero and cilantro with 1/2 teaspoon salt into a paste. (If you want to be more authentic, you can use a molcajete and tejolote.)
- Score the avocado by making three cuts down and four cuts across each half. Scoop out the flesh and mix it together with the paste, using two wooden spoons to mash down larger chunks.
- Add the remaining onion, habañero, cilantro, salt and lime juice and mix thoroughly. Gently fold in the mango and papaya and serve with jicama, cucumber and baby carrots.
Fish served with tomatoes, capers olives and onions is the most famous dish from the state of Veracruz. Red snapper or bass is typically used, but any mild, meaty fillets will work. The dish can be served hot or at room temperature, in which case, the tomato mixture may be made several hours ahead of time.
Serves 4 to 6
1 large whole gutted red snapper (around 3 lbs.; head, tail and fins removed if desired) or 4 (7-oz.) fillets
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium white onion, peeled and diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 pounds plum tomatoes, seeded and diced
1/2 cup Spanish green olives, pitted
1/4 cup capers
1 teaspoon jarred pickled jalapeño chilies, sliced
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican
12 new potatoes, peeled, blanched and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
4 to 6 cups cooked white rice
- In a glass casserole, season the fish with salt and pepper. Pour on the lime juice, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.
- In a large heavy casserole, heat the olive oil over medium heat until it begins to shimmer. Add the onion and a pinch of salt, cover and sweat until translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté briefly; add the tomatoes and a pinch more salt; cover and cook until the tomatoes no longer look raw.
- Lower the heat and add the olives, capers, jalapeños, bay leaves and oregano. Cover and simmer until the sauce thickens slightly, about 10 to 12 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, remove the bay leaves and keep warm until ready to serve.
- Preheat the oven to 350° F.
- Place 1/2 cup of the sauce in the bottom of an ovenproof 3½ to 4-quart oval or rectangular dish. Remove the fish from the marinade and place it on top of the sauce. Pour the remaining sauce over the fish and sprinkle the potato slices on top. Cover and bake until the fish flakes when gently tested with a fork, about 30 to 40 minutes (or 8 to 10 minutes if using fillets). Garnish with the parsley and serve with white rice.
Easy Grilled Lime Chicken Fajitas
The epitome of simplicity, these fajitas make a festive entrée without a lot of fuss. They’re made with low-calorie, low-fat skinless chicken breasts yet are boldly flavorful. Serve with purchased or homemade salsa plus a basket of warmed corn tortillas.
Serves at least 4
4 ancho or other dried chilies, stemmed and seeded
4 limes, cut into 1/4-inch slices
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
2–3 cloves garlic, crushed or finely chopped
1 jalapeño, seeded, if desired, and finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Warm corn tortillas
Salsa of choice
- In a small pan, rehydrate the dried chilies in just enough hot water to cover; soak until tender (about 20 minutes) and drain.
- Fold the lime slices, lime juice, garlic and jalapeño into the chile mixture and add half the salt. In a large non-reactive bowl or resealable plastic bag, coat the chicken with the mixture, cover and refrigerate for about 8 hours.
- Remove chicken from marinade and season with the rest of the salt.
- Heat a grill or broiler until hot. Place the breasts on the grill or on the broiler pan lined with aluminum foil. Cook about 5 to 6 minutes per side or until just cooked through, turning once. Remove, slice, and serve with warm corn tortillas and your favorite salsa.
The calabacitas in this festive vegetable medley refer to the zucchini or “small squashes” that are combined with corn and black beans.
Serves 4 to 6
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and cut into medium dice
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 zucchini, diced (do not peel)
1 poblano chile pepper, seeded and diced
2 Thai chilies, seeded, if desired, and very thinly sliced
1 cup fresh, defrosted frozen or canned corn kernels
2 cups canned or cooked black beans, rinsed and drained
1 teaspoon Maggi sauce
Salt to taste
- In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring until translucent. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute.
- Add the zucchini, poblano pepper and Thai chilies and sauté until just tender but still slightly crisp. Stir in the corn, black beans and Maggi sauce and heat through. Season to taste with salt.
You and your guests are in for a tasty surprise with this light but satisfyingly sweet combination of — yes — cucumbers blended with lime juice. Serve this chilled dessert in bowls with a platter of Mexican Wedding Cookies, if you desire.
Serves 4 to 6
6 large English cucumbers, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 cup superfine granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
1 cup tequila, preferably silver
Juice and zest of two limes
1/8 teaspoon salt
- In the jar of an electric blender, working in batches, combine the cucumber and remaining ingredients and purée until smooth. Pour into a shallow 10 x 12-inch metal pan, stirring the ingredients together.
- Freeze, but stir and crush the lumps with a fork every hour or until evenly frozen, about 4 hours total.
- Scrape with a fork to lighten texture and get rid of clumps. Serve immediately or freeze, covered, for up to 3 days (re-scrape to lighten texture again if necessary).
Perfection in a glass!
1 ounce simple syrup (recipe follows)
1 tablespoon Lime-Salt Sugar (recipe follows)
3 ounces tequila, preferably 100 percent agave silver (see above)
2 ounces freshly squeezed lime juice
1/2 to 1 teaspoon orange liqueur (Cointeau, Grand Marnier, Triple Sec)
- Prepare the Simple Syrup and Lime-Salt Sugar.
- Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add the tequila, lime juice, orange liqueur and Simple Syrup. Cover and shake until mixed and chilled, about 30 seconds. Place the Lime-Salt Sugar on a plate. Press the rim of a chilled rocks or wine glass into the mixture to rim the edge. Strain the margarita into the glass.
Yield: about 1½ cups
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup water
Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Set aside to cool. Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.
Zest of 1 lime
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Blend the lime, salt and sugar together in a small blender or mini food chopper.
A refreshing variation on the classic.
1 1/2 cups roughly chopped watermelon (seeds removed)
6 (1/8-inch-thick) slices seedless cucumber (peeled, if desired)
10 large fresh mint leaves
1/2 cup tequila, preferably 100 percent agave silver
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons Simple Syrup
1 tablespoon orange liqueur (as above)
2 cups ice cubes
2 small watermelon triangles, each skewered on a bar pick with 1 cucumber round, to garnish
2 fresh mint sprigs, to garnish
- Combine the watermelon, cucumber and mint leaves in a food mill or colander and set over a medium bowl. Process the mixture through the food mill or, if using a colander, press firmly on the solids with a muddler or wooden spoon until mashed.
- Pour the fruit juice from Step 1 into a shaker. Add the tequila, lime juice, Simple Syrup and orange liqueur, and 1 cup of ice. Top with the shaker glass and shake to blend well. Strain into 2 tall glasses filled with ice and garnish with watermelon skewers and mint sprigs. Salud!
Joanna Pruess is an award-winning writer and cookbook author whose passions include food, travel and entertaining.