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This morning’s episode of The Kitchen was largely dedicated to Cinco de Mayo — plus mayonnaise at times — so the co-hosts came together to host a celebratory fiesta complete with warm, sweet churros, more than 50 types of tacos and a colorful pinata. While on the set of the show recently, FN Dish caught up with Marcela Valladolid to get her take on Cinco ahead of Monday’s holiday. Read on below to learn her tips for pulling off a Mexican-themed bash at home, and find out how she puts her signature spin on traditional eats and drinks, then check out her top-rated recipe for Tres Leches Cake (pictured above).
How do you celebrate Cinco de Mayo in your home?
Marcela Valladolid: I don’t. … Nobody in all of Mexico celebrates Cinco de Mayo. … Many folks on this side of the border confuse it with Mexican independence day, which is actually Sept. 16. … I didn’t really start getting into the holiday until I moved to the U.S. about five years ago, to San Diego. ‘Cause in downtown San Diego, it’s huge. It’s margaritas all over the place. Growing up in Mexico, I was like, it’s so crazy that they’re even celebrating, but now I like to embrace the fact that they’re just celebrating Mexican culture, and there’s such wonderful beauty about that.
What are a few must-haves to pull off the ultimate fiesta?
MV: Having a signature cocktail would be really nice. And then of course you need some Mexican appetizers — the standard stuff that you don’t need silverware for because you want to have the drink in one hand and the appetizer in the other. A simple guac would be great. You have to have a good playlist; good pop Mexican music would be really good. I say, have sombreros. Why not? It’s Cinco de Mayo — they’re all over the place. They’re super cheap, they’re great for photos; selfies are everything right now, so get some sombreros.
Tacos shells: soft or crunchy?
MV: I would certainly say the soft taco. And here’s why. It’s more traditional. And they’re very easy to warm up. Get a griddle going — one of those electric ones that you plug into the wall that can fit, like, five tortillas at a time. Warm those up, then have your taco bar. And it’s so nice to have a warm, soft corn tortilla, especially if you also have an ice-cold margarita or an ice-cold drink.
For people making a traditional taco bar, what should they opt for in terms of fillings and toppings?
MV: For the fillings, you can do anything from chicken to pork to shredded beef to fish — anything you have going on, just grill it up or fry it up, and it’s ready. For the toppings, you always want to add something crunchy. You could do shredded lettuce, shredded cabbage, shredded radicchio if you like things that are nice and bitter. You always want to add something spicy, so you could do pickled habaneros. You certainly want to do salsas. You want to add that spice, so you could do a fresh pico de gallo, which is super traditional; you could do a salsa borracha, which is a drunken salsa made with tequila and orange juice, which is really nice. … And then you need those fresh ingredients to kind of balance it out, so I would certainly do avocado slices — you have to. Mexican crema: I’m not a huge fan of using sour cream, but I know it’s Cinco de Mayo and people want to use sour cream. And then I’ve always said there’s no yellow cheese in Mexican food, so I would stay far, far away from yellow cheese, but if you want to have that cheese factor, do some crumbled queso fresco.
What’s the secret to making the ultimate guacamole?
MV: I’ve always said, in order to make a good guacamole, all you need is to be able to pick a good avocado. Because that’s all guacamole should be. … You can certainly do a million things to it, but if it’s a properly picked avocado that’s nice and firm but still gentle to the touch, perfectly green when you peel it … to me, you don’t need to add anything, so you’re just enhancing with a little bit of salt and a little bit of lime juice. Lime juice is everything in Mexican food; it’s like a flavor catalyst. And maybe you want to add a little bit of chopped fresh cilantro. And if you’re into spice — I’m into serranos because you don’t have to add that much and you’ll have plenty of spice.
Margaritas: frozen or on the rocks?
MV: [With] frozen you can’t taste anything. I feel like they numb your palate. … There was a point in my career when I was like, margaritas are no good, because if it’s a good tequila you don’t make it into a margarita, and I never buy cheap tequila. So I would never make a margarita. I’ve kind of shifted [my views] a little bit. If you have something good to mix it with like a fresh fruit juice or a fresh berry juice — really light, where you can actually taste the tequila — that’s when I drink margaritas. For me, they always have to be on the rocks. I would never blend it because, like I said, if you drink a blended margarita, it just kind of numbs everything.