I grew up in New York City, which is an incredibly diverse place. Yet surprisingly, and somehow, Cinco de Mayo flew under my radar. There's a Mexican neighborhood in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, but it's nothing compared to the size of the Mexican communities in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado or California.
Anyway, I first heard of the holiday the year after I graduated from college and moved to San Francisco. An office mate invited me to what would be my first Cinco de Mayo party. "Cinco de what?" I replied, as I opened my day planner. Then I said something like, "Sure, I'd love to come to the party! What's that date again?" There were blank stares. And a few eye rolls.
Many years later, I've got dozens of Cinco de Mayo parties under my belt. And here in Colorado there are tons of festivities around town and a two-day celebration is held at Civic Center Park. We decided to go to a friend's house to celebrate on the 5th and went downtown on the 6th. For the occasion I made these Tomatillo-Sauced Spinach & Mushroom Enchiladas. They were delicious. I ate so many that I felt like a piñata about to burst. In a good way, sort of.
I adjusted the heat of the tomatillo salsa a bit, but you can tweak it to your suit your taste preference. I thought the dish was a really nice twist on a casual, yet traditional, Mexican entree.
I had some tomatillo salsa (salsa verde) to spare, so the next morning I put it on top of some baked eggs with Gruyere, which was also very delicious!
Yield : Serves 4
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 medium-sized (2 1/2 inches) jalapeño, stemmed, seeded and quartered (if you want it hotter, leave the seeds in-- I've made it both ways)
1 ½ pounds (10 to 12 medium) tomatillos, husked, rinsed and cut into quarters
¾ cup (loosely packed) roughly chopped cilantro, plus a few extra sprigs for garnish
4 tablespoons vegetable oil or olive oil, plus some for the tortillas
2 cups vegetable broth, plus water as needed
8 ounces mushrooms (I used button, but you can use oyster or shiitake too), stemmed and sliced
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
10 ounces (about 10 cups) spinach, stems removed
12 corn tortillas, preferably store-bought
5 tablespoons Mexican cream, sour cream, heavy cream or crème fraiche
1 cup (4 ounces) crumbled Mexican queso fresco
Turn on the oven to 350 degrees. With a food processor or blender running, drop in the garlic and chiles one piece at a time, letting each piece get finely chopped before adding the next. Add the tomatillos and cilantro; process until smooth.
Heat 1 ½ tablespoons of the oil in a medium (3-quart) saucepan over medium-high. Add the puree and cook, stirring nearly constantly, until the mixture has reduced to the consistency of thick tomato sauce, about 7 minutes. (The more you cook down this base, the richer and sweeter the tomatillo sauce will be.) Add the broth and simmer over medium heat for about 10 minutes to blend the flavors. (If the heat is a bit too much, you can mellow it a bit by adding some water.)
While the sauce is simmering, heat the remaining 1 ½ tablespoons oil in a very large (12-inch) skillet over medium-high. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring nearly constantly, for a couple of minutes, until they begin to brown. Add about three-quarters of the onion (reserve the rest for garnish) and continue cooking, stirring frequently, for another minute or two, until the onion looks translucent. Add the spinach and optional chicken or ham and cook, stirring constantly, for a minute or so, until the spinach is wilted. Season with salt, usually a scant teaspoon. Cover to keep warm.
Lay out the tortillas on a baking sheet and spray or brush lightly on both sides with oil or bacon drippings, then stack them in twos. Slide the tortillas into the oven and bake just long enough to make them soft and pliable, about 3 minutes. Remove from the oven and stack them in a single pile; cover with a kitchen towel to keep warm. (This step is necessary. If you skip it, and try filling the tortillas without baking or frying them, they will fall apart when you start to roll them up.)
Stir the cream (or its stand-in) into the sauce. Taste and season with salt, usually about 1 teaspoon (add the sugar if the sauce seems quite tart to you). Holding a tortilla by one edge, dip most of it into the sauce, then lay it on a plate. Spoon a heaping 2 tablespoons filling down the center, roll up and lay seam side down in a dinner plate. Repeat with 2 more tortillas, arranging them on the same dinner plate. Douse the enchiladas with about ¼ cup of the warm sauce, sprinkle with a quarter of the crumbled cheese and garnish with some of the reserved onion and cilantro sprigs.
Assemble the rest of the servings, and carry to the table without hesitation.
The day after Cinco de Mayo we decided to head down to the Civic Center to check out the scene and eat some food. (The temperature had also dropped about 20 degrees, so it was a much better day for walking around.) The park was seemingly less crowded than it had been the day before, but there were still lots of people, great food stalls and live music...and a lot of Tecate. My favorite snack of the day were the elotes, ears of corn smothered in mayonnaise, chili powder and cotija cheese. Mmm, yum.
We topped things off with a funnel cake, which is decidedly un-Mexican, but very much a part of fair/street food. Deep fried batter sprinkled with powdered sugar?! Yes, please!
On the way back to the car we passed the Denver Art Museum (YSL is still going on), the main library, some great public art, and the Clyfford Still Museum (still one of my favorites, pardon the pun).
All in all, we had a great time celebrating Cinco de Mayo and I'm looking forward to celebrating again next year, on the 5th of May!