Chop Talk: Aarón Sánchez on Cinco de Mayo

Aaron Sanchez

Chef Aarón Sánchez / Photo courtesy of Aarón Sánchez

Cinco de Mayo is more than an excuse to drink margaritas. And it is not — repeat, not — Mexican independence day (that’s Sept. 16).

Instead, it commemorates the victory of outgunned and outnumbered Mexican soldiers over Napoleon’s army in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. It’s a low-key holiday in Mexico — principally celebrated in Puebla.

In the U.S., however, it’s become a national fiesta. If everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, then everyone is Mexican on Cinco de Mayo. Mexican-American chef Aarón Sánchez, owner of Mestizo in Leawood, Kan., and a co-host on television shows including the Food Network’s “Chopped,” comes from a long line of Cinco de Mayo revelers. He spoke with American Food Roots editor Michele Kayal about how to celebrate on Cinco de Mayo.

American Food Roots: You were born in El Paso, Texas, and moved to New York when you were about 8. Did you grow up celebrating Cinco de Mayo?

Aarón Sánchez: For us, Cinco de Mayo was a work day because I grew up in a Mexican restaurant. We did celebrate it, along with everyone else. It’s as if my parents owned an Irish bar on St. Paddy’s Day.

AFR: What food and drinks and rituals did the celebration include?

AS: It was a busy time and it was an opportunity to get people into a Mexican restaurant that might not come. So we’d make special things, chiles en nogada — a roasted poblano chile stuffed with meat filling with walnut sauce and pomegranate. And then you make molé, of course, and tamales, stuff like that. And tons of tequila.

AFR: I understand there was also some Latin karaoke.

AS: Yes, we do a little Latin karaoke as well. Everyone likes to masquerade as a mariachi singer in my family.

AFR: How has the holiday changed since you were a kid?

AS: The biggest thing is you try to teach people it’s not Mexican independence day. It commemorates the Battle of Puebla when the Mexicans defeated the French. People are starting to understand the significance of the holiday.

AFR: Your mom is Zarela Martinez, the beloved Mexican chef and authority on Mexican cooking. How has Mexican food as a whole changed in America since the days you began cooking with your mom?

AS: There’s a lot more regionality. People are starting to understand where dishes hail from. It’s not as homogenized as before. It’s like saying there’s one kind of Chinese food. And you’re getting a lot more talented chefs from Mexico opening restaurants in the States. There’s Roberto Santibañez of Fonda, my co-host Aquiles Chávez [on Fox Life MOTOCHEFS], Richard Sandoval. You’re starting to see a lot more Mexican nationals moving over here and opening up shop.

AFR: Do you still have family in Mexico?

AS: Oh yeah, the majority is there. I have a lot of family in Juarez, Chihuahua, Sonora. And some on the interior.

AFR: Do they celebrate Cinco de Mayo?

AS: Not really. It’s not a holiday that’s celebrated in other parts of Mexico except Puebla. Because that’s where it went down. It’s recognized there.

AFR: Why is Cinco de Mayo an important holiday for Americans to celebrate? What can we learn about Mexican culture?

AS: It’s a good reminder to everyone to be festive and to understand there were sacrifices made to be able to have Mexican food here. … Maybe they’ll understand some aspect of the food they might have not known before. Just like St. Paddy’s Day, you don’t want it just to be an excuse for people to get drunk and act like knuckleheads.

AFR: As with St. Patrick’s Day, everyone’s Mexican on Cinco de Mayo. Any recommendations for how to celebrate authentically?

AS: What would be fun would be to make a taco party. Have a few stews, some braised dishes, maybe pork with green sauce. Some different salsas, some different chiles. And do a big buffet. Have someone making fresh tortillas to order. That would be neat. Have a big cauldron of bubbling mole. Have a big steamer with tamales in it. And maybe mescal to drink. That’s a wonderful spirit. It’s a smokier version of tequila.

AFR: Finally, your restaurant is called Mestizo, which means a man of mixed race. Why?

AS: When something’s a mestizo, it’s a mixture of pre-Hispanic indigenous culture and the Europeans or Iberians that came. So the mixture of European blood and indigenous blood, that’s a mestizo. I wanted it to be a mixture of authentic flavors, but highlighting who I am. I have a fair bit of indigenous blood.

AFR: Cinco de Mayo, with its roots both here and in Mexico, is a bit of a mestizo, isn’t it?

AS: That’s a very good point. Because it’s a mestizo, people should understand that a lot of what we call America was once Mexico. … You should celebrate it by understanding, being more adventurous and trying new dishes and seeking out restaurants that are more authentic.

Chop Talk is an occasional series in which American Food Roots talks with food newsmakers about issues of current interest.

Makes 6 servings

Aarón Sánchez’s Chiles en Nogada

These stuffed chiles are full of delicate flavors that demonstrate the complexity of Mexican cooking. Aarón Sánchez, the Mexican chef and co-host of Food Network's "Chopped," suggests making these for Cinco de Mayo. He recommends using Cacique-brand crema Mexicana and queso fresco. The recipe comes courtesy of Aarón Sánchez. / Photo by Arturo Sánchez, via Wikimedia Commons

Ingredients

  • Pork
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1½ pounds ground pork
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 medium white onion, finely diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • 1 tablespoon, chopped fresh thyme leaves

  • Filling
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil or lard
  • 1 medium white onion, finely diced
  • 3 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes, coarsely chopped, with juice
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • 1 large bay leaf
  • 1 (4-inch) cinnamon stick (preferably Mexican)
  • ¼ teaspoon ground allspice
  • ⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 pinch freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon cider vinegar, or to taste
  • 1½ teaspoons sugar, or to taste
  • ¾ teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 1 small peach
  • ⅓ cup dried apricots, coarsely chopped
  • ¼ cup raisins
  • ¼ cup pine nuts
  • ⅓ cup peeled green apple, diced into ⅓-inch cubes
  • ½ cup peeled very ripe (black) plantain or firm banana, diced into ⅓-inch cubes

  • Sauce
  • 1½ cups walnut halves
  • ¾ cup slivered almonds
  • 1½ cups crema Mexicana*
  • 6 ounces queso fresco, crumbled*
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt

  • Chiles
  • 8 large fresh poblano chiles, roasted and peeled
  • ½ cup fresh pomegranate seeds

Instructions

To make the pork, in a large skillet heat the oil over medium heat. Cook the ground pork with the salt, onion, garlic and thyme until the meat is browned, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

To make the filling, heat the oil (or lard) in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderately low heat. Cook the onion and garlic, stirring, until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the tomatoes, thyme sprig, bay leaf, cinnamon stick, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, cider vinegar, sugar and salt and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have broken down and the sauce is slightly thickened, 20 to 30 minutes.

While tomatoes simmer, cut a ½-inch “X” in the bottom of the peach, then immerse in boiling water until skin begins to loosen, 10 to 30 seconds. Transfer the peach to a bowl of cold water to stop cooking, then peel, pit and dice.

Remove the thyme sprig, bay leaf and cinnamon stick from the tomato mixture, add pork mixture, dried apricots, raisins, pine nuts, apple and plantain and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until fruit is softened but still intact, 8 to 10 minutes. Season with additional salt and vinegar to taste.

To make the sauce, purée the walnuts and almonds in a blender with the crema Mexicana, queso fresco, sugar and salt until smooth and silky, about 2 minutes (if it’s too thick, add a few tablespoons milk or water to smooth it out).

For the chiles, put the oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350 F. Cut a lengthwise slit in each chile and carefully cut out seeds with kitchen shears, leaving stem intact. Divide the pork and tomato filling among the chiles, then close, overlapping sides of openings slightly. Transfer, slit side up, to a 13- by-9-inch shallow baking dish, then cover with foil and bake until just heated through, 15 to 20 minutes.

To serve, transfer the chiles to plates, carefully turning them seam sides down. Pour about ⅓ cup of the walnut sauce over each chile, leaving some of the chile visible, then sprinkle chiles with pomegranate seeds.

Serve chiles warm or at room temperature.

*Available in Latin markets and some grocery stores, depending on your region of the country.

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