(Did anyone else have crazy birds up all night on Cinco de Mayo with that huge full moon? I woke at three am and thought it must be morning – light streaming through the windows and birds going wild with chirping, screeching, chittering and chattering … almost makes you wonder if they broke into the tequila!)

The question of why we in California, and really nation-wide, make such a big deal about Cinco de Mayo is a good one. Here is one response worth reading. Here is another:

J: “Daddy, why are we celebrating Cinco de Mayo?”

K: “Because if the Mexicans hadn’t defeated the French, we would have to eat crepes all the time instead of burritos.” 

Not that there is anything wrong with crepes. But at our house we do eat a lot of Mexi-Cali. Green chilies are one of the four canned products I still buy (tomatoes, coconut milk, and tuna, if you’re wondering what the other three are) and black beans are always a possibility when I am not sure what to make for a meal. We love to make our own tortillas, and most anything can find its way in to them – whether it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

But for Cinco we wanted something special. We actually went all the way and made a steak – we cook red meat at home only about twice a year, and I can already tell you that the next time will be beef stew, which Kyle will start shamelessly begging for when the weather turns in the fall. But it is warm here this weekend, and fajitas sounded really good – all those veggies, a little bit of meat, and a cool crisp salad on the side … I also decided that since we were celebrating a Mexican holiday I would allow myself a Mexico-grown heirloom tomato from the grocery store – I am always disappointed when I eat tomatoes out of season, and sadly this was no exception, but it was pretty to look at.

Kyle and I split a local beer that was aged in whisky barrels – well, Kyle got twenty ounces of beer and I got two – I will have to ask him to write a guest post, since it was an interesting drink.

For a couple of years in graduate school, my brother Dan hosted a party called Cinco de June. Yes, it was in June. No, it was not a real holiday. But it was fun. And the Cinco tradition bore witness to a turning point in the life of that extended group of friends. While the first year was a full on house-party rager (DJing, possibly some illegal substances, and everyone passing out sleeping on broken-down couches, including several moldy ones that lived permanently in the backyard of Dan’s shelter house) the final iteration of Cinco saw a smaller group of people, one that could make a pretty convincing case for young adulthood. Which is to say we ate a potluck dinner al fresco at a long table in the grass, we brought air mattresses to sleep on, and no one threw up in the sink.

For this year’s Cinco celebration, I made a green tomatillo sauce (mild, so the kids could partake, and then we mixed a grown up version by going all in with the Cholula). We jiggered around the ricotta recipe and got something remarkably close to Queso Blanco. And we started with this marinade idea for our steak – I told you Kyle has been hankering after it.

This is the perfect meal to eat outside with friends as the evenings are warming up and lengthening out. Let the kids run in the grass (or on the patio). Watch the stars come out – grab a sweater if you need one, and then grab another beer. (Maybe you can even convince the birds to share some of whatever they’re having). 

And hey – there’s no shame in humming a little Richard Marx when you cook a Cinco meal, right? Or maybe there is. Okay there definitely is. But even so –  I remember every moment, of those endless summer nights … 

(Oh whoa oh whoa yeah!

Steak Fajitas with Spelt and Chia Tortillas, Tomatillo Sauce, Queso Blanco and Dandelion Slaw (five recipes below – cinco, get it? :) )

(Disclaimer: if you make all these things for one dinner, it will be delicious, and also you will be using a lot of pots and pans – so make it an occasion, and share a beer with your partner while you clean up late into the night). 

New York Top Loin with Lime-Cilantro Marinade
We ended up with a relatively expensive steak cut because I wanted organic and grass fed and I was late to market and so had limited choices. But a flank or skirt steak would have been perfect (and much less expensive). Since we indulge in “dead cow” (Jacob!) so rarely, I didn’t feel too bad. Although I felt slightly guilty marinating such a nice piece of meat. Anyway – I used a 3/4 pound steak and all three guys were unhappy that there wasn’t more. And so it goes with meat in our family … We served this with a big pan of slow-caramelized sweet onions, cooked down with julienned orange and green bell peppers. Perfect. 

3 good-sized limes (zest and juice)
3/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves
Big pinch of coarse salt
Big pinch of granulated sugar
1 tablespoon canola oil

At least an hour before cooking (longer if your meat is tougher, overnight even if you have a flank steak or similar) mix everything for the marinade together in a bowl. Lay the steak in and turn a few times to coat. (If you are marinating for several hours, you can turn it every so often and baste it with marinade juices – or, be like my dad and marinate it in a plastic ziplock where it is completely submerged, and set the ziplock in a bowl in your fridge).

You can grill this, of course. I cooked ours in the cast iron, as follows: preheat oven to 500 F (make sure it really has time to heat up). When you are ready to cook, heat a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat for a couple minutes until it is hot. Lay in the steak (pour marinade over top) and let it sear for a minute on one side. The flip it over, and move the pan into the oven. Cook to your desired doneness – for our 3/4 pound top loin, I cooked it for ten minutes and it was perfect medium rare. I sliced it, gave some to Kyle, and then put half of the slices back in the skillet and cooked it on the stove top for a few minutes, since I am more of a well-well-well done person (I know, I know, it’s sacrilege – between that and marinating this cut of meat, I have clearly offended the steak gods and goddesses out there). The sugar in the marinade caramelizes with the lime and cilantro because of the high heat, and you end up with little crispy bits of marinade on your meat, and lots of limey flavor – we *loved* the way this tasted. Very lime forward, perfect on fajitas.

* * * * *

Spelt and Chia Tortillas
Lately the tortillas we have been making are a spelt-flour, chia-spiked version that was inspired by the whole wheat dough in this post from Repas de Budget – which is actually an empanada recipe, but the empanada dough was inspired by a tortilla recipe – then I took the empanada dough (we made the empanadas a few times by the way, with various fillings – quite good) and used it to make tortillas. Anyway … these are not a traditionalist’s tortillas, but they are tasty, quick to make, and can be rolled thick or thin depending on what you’re serving. I went relatively thick on these ones, to make sure they would stand up to all the veggies, meat, and sauce … 

1 1/2 cups spelt flour
1/2 cup all purpose flour
2 tablespoons chia seeds
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup canola oil
1/2 cup warm water
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

In a mixing bowl stir together the flours, chia seeds, baking powder, salt and sugar. Add the canola oil and stir to combine. Then add half of the water and the vinegar. Mix together, and if the dough is still crumbly keep adding warm water a tablespoon at a time. Dough should come together in a smooth, round ball and be nice and moist, but not too sticky to roll out. Let the dough sit for five minutes to rest. Divide the dough; if you want larger tortillas, make twelve balls of dough. If you want smaller ones, make sixteen balls of dough. Let the divided dough sit for about 5 minutes, while you heat a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Start flattening the dough balls – for thicker tortillas you can use your hands, for thin ones you will definitely want a rolling pin. Put the flattened rounds into the pan, and cook for two minutes, or a minute total on each side, flipping once or twice until they are cooked through. If needed you can cook one more minute after flipping them the second time, but don’t overcook, or you will have tortilla chips! :)

* * * * *

Tomatillo Sauce
We have been wanting to make a green enchilada sauce for a while now, and soon I will. In the meantime, this is a nice, fresh tasting tomatillo sauce that is terrific on grilled meats. Kyle mixed a liberal amount of Cholula hot sauce into half of this sauce to give it some kick, but if you were cooking it for a meal without kids you could just include 1 or 2 fresh serrano chiles – dice them and put them in with the tomatillos when you start the sauce.  

5 fresh tomatillos, husked and washed
1 garlic clove, minced
1 or 2 sprigs fresh cilantro, minced
1 large shallot, minced
Salt to taste (we used about a teaspoon)

Optional: 1 or 2 fresh serrano chiles (or, several teaspoons Cholula hot sauce)

Chop the tomatillos and put them with a couple tablespoons of salted water into a small sauce pan, along with the garlic (and the hot peppers if using). Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally,  until they start to break down. Turn off the heat and stir in the minced garlic and shallot. Blend with a stick blender or process in the food processor until you have a coarse and relatively chunky puree.

Tomatillos have a lot of pectin, and so you might want to thin the sauce (mine was slightly gelatinous). Stir in water a tablespoon at a time to get the consistency that you want, then season with salt. Let the sauce sit for fifteen or twenty minutes before serving, so it cools completely and the flavors blend.

You can mix half of it with hot sauce before serving, if you are cooking for both spice-lovers and spice-haters.

* * * * *

Queso Blanco
I mean the actual Mexican-style fresh cheese, not the cheese-dip that Tex Mex restaurants have popularized in the US … And here is a secret: queso blanco is a sort of hard-curdled ricotta. What I mean by that is that if you are lazy and make your ricotta by adding extra lemon to the milk and then letting the milk come just to a boil rather than a gentle simmer, you will pretty much have made some queso blanco. Despite that description, it is actually quite delicious, and the perfect creamy foil for all the limey, spicy punch of these fajitas. 

1 quart whole milk
1/2 cup lemon juice (from regular, not Meyer, lemons)
Salt to taste (we used 1/2 teaspoon)

Ice a large heavy bottomed pot by letting an ice cube melt in it, swirling the ice all around and then leaving the thin layer of ice water that forms. Pour in your milk and then heat over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the milk is almost, but not quite boiling.

Take it off the heat, add the lemon juice, and stir – you will see the curds forming. That is good! If you are not getting lots of curds right away, add a little bit more lemon juice.

Once you have lots of curds (a minute or so), let the pot sit for ten minutes. Strain everything through a double layer of dampened cheesecloth set into a colander over a pan to catch the whey (you can make a corn-and-whey waffle or bread with it). Let the cheese curds sit and drain for at least ten minutes, then squeeze the cheesecloth around them to get any last whey out. They should be nice and crumbly, but soft. Put in a bowl and serve – or, keep covered in the fridge for several days.

* * * * *

Red Dandelion Slaw
Crispy, cool, fresh and crunchy. Just what a plate of spicy fajitas and creamy cheese needs to balance it out. We used red cabbage here and the colors were really striking, but green cabbage would be good too. Make sure you allow at least a few minutes for the greens and cabbage to soften in the dressing. You don’t want them soggy, but you also don’t want them tough. 

1/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup muscato vinegar (or white vinegar)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 head of red cabbage, ribboned
10 leaves of red dandelion greens, ribboned
2 carrots, chopped
6-8 radishes, sliced
1/2 cucumber, sliced

Optional: nasturtium blossoms

At least fifteen minutes before serving, whisk the orange juice, vinegar, salt, sugar, and oil together in your salad bowl. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired (pepper, lemon zest, or finely chopped mint would all be possible additions to this dressing that would take it in a slightly different but equally nice direction).

Add the cabbage and dandelion greens to the dressing, stir to coat, and let sit for ten minutes, stirring once or twice.

Just before serving, add the carrots, radishes, and cucumber. Toss. Sprinkle with nasturtium petals to make it even more colorful.

Happy Cinco de Mayo! 

* * * * *

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