It is hard to believe that May is fast approaching! It has always been my favourite month of the year. When I was in school in Mexico, the May calendar was studded with several holidays, which meant days off: May 1st – Labour Day; May 5th – Battle of Puebla; May 10th – Mother’s Day; May 15th – Teacher Appreciation Day. As a grown-up, in Canada, the fun has continued: May 18th was my first day ever in the country; Victoria Day – on the third Monday; and now, the month of May marks the end of the winter term for my daughters, meaning they are coming home for the summer! We always have family activities, such as backyard evenings by the fire bowl, day trips to shop or enjoy nature, and our specialty: themed meals.
For May 5th (Cinco de Mayo), I am preparing a full menu featuring recipes from places that had an important role in this episode of Mexican History. There are two questions I frequently get asked about Cinco de Mayo: 1) Why is it celebrated so much outside Mexico? And 2) Do you have any good Margarita recipes? I will start with the first question, and over the next few posts, make my way to the second.
The famous Battle of Puebla, on May 5th, 1862, gave a victory to the Mexican army led by General Ignacio Zaragoza against French invaders. It appears to be a straightforward event between two nations, but the back story brings Spain, the Great Britain and especially the United States, into play:
After Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the territory of Coahuila y Tejas was recognized as a Mexican state. Mexico also owned other extensive territories in the area, the present-day U.S. states of California, Nevada, and Utah, as well as part of Arizona, about half of New Mexico, one quarter of Colorado, and a small section of Wyoming. After the Texas war in 1835-36, a chunk of Coahuila y Tejas and the other half of New Mexico declared their independence from Mexico to briefly become the Republic of Texas. Some American groups in the South (later the Confederates) supported the move, and promoted the Mexican-American war of 1846-48, which gained the afford mentioned extensive territories for the US (known as the Mexican Cession); shortly after, the Republic of Texas joined the US. In 1861, the American Civil War placed the young Southern states and territories under Confederate power or threat, and the anti-slavery and Hispanic local populations found themselves in a very vulnerable position. In France, Napoleon III (Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew) became the head of the Second French Empire in 1852. By 1860, his regime was stable and he had extended his influence in Europe. In 1861, the Mexican Reform War (1858-1861) had just ended; Mexico’s debt to Spain, the Great Britain and France was enormous, and the newly elected Liberal president Benito Juárez was facing tough negotiations with them. The three European powers sent military forces to Mexico, over the debt dispute, and were stationed in the Port of Veracruz (Veracruz state, see map above). Napoleon III had ulterior motives; he thought that establishing a Mexican Empire under French rule, would give France commercial prosperity in the Americas, as well as a strategic position to influence the American Civil War. Napoleon III planned to aid the Confederates to win the war, and gain an ally in the US, which had become a growing influence in Latin America. (Next post – Second Stop: Puebla)
My first culinary stop is the Mexican state of Veracruz, possessing a rich cuisine with Spanish and Caribbean (African) influences. Black beans and rice with fried bananas (plantain) is a popular combination of flavours along the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico coasts, and the Mexican version gets the special touch of Jalapeño peppers, named after Jalapa, Veracruz’s capital city.
Black Beans and White Rice with Plantain
2 cups cooked black beans, drained
1 large Jalapeño pepper, whole
1 cup water
Salt and black pepper, to taste
1 batch Mexican white rice, warm (follow this recipe, but omit corn and Poblano)
2 plantain (cooking bananas)
1 tbsp. olive or other vegetable oil
Pour beans, water, and jalapeño in a pot; bring to boil, then lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper:
Meanwhile, wash and dry plantain; slice ends off and peel:
Slice each plantain in half, then slice each half lengthwise:
Heat oil in iron skillet, add plantain and fry over medium heat, flipping once, until golden brown on both sides:
Before serving, remove stem and seeds from jalapeño, and slice into strips. Assemble plates with a portion of rice, topped with plantain, next to a portion of beans with a few strips of jalapeño on top: